The COVID-19 headlines about meatpacking and processing plants closing should be enough for any similar business to pause and reflect: This could easily happen to anyone in the food and beverage industry. Operationally, many businesses have a crisis plan in place, but more than likely, they don’t have a crisis communication plan prepared. An unprepared communication response can damage all the trust the company has painstakingly built over the years.

A good crisis communication plan should include:

  • A predetermined crisis response team and their contact information
  • Draft communications for specific crisis scenarios to address audiences such as employees, stakeholders and media
  • An identified spokesperson
  • All the available channels of communication and how to access them

Companies that don’t have a crisis communication plan in place, need to do it now. Instead of waiting for a crisis to occur, businesses need to have a conversation with team members who represent the different aspects of its operations such as HR, quality, meat production, managers and others. Focusing on the people who will need to be involved from a communication standpoint ensures a multi-faceted perspective when it comes to determining accurate communications.  

This process/flow of communication should be focused on getting the right information to the right people at the right time as well as the channels of how the communications can be delivered in a timely way. The foundation of the communication plan should be in place so when a crisis strikes, now or in the future, the crisis team isn’t scrambling to communicate with customers, suppliers and those who depend on and trust the company.

For the food and beverage industry, the most likely scenario is that an employee tests positive for COVID-19 and the plant must shut down. A crisis communication plan will address all of the following:

  • Who does the company need to communicate with?
  • What will it communicate?
  • How will it communicate with all its target audiences, including the media?

The crisis response team should start by outlining the people involved in these communications, the process of communicating (who will be doing what), and then decide what the messaging should be. What should they say to reassure the company’s target audiences that closing the plant is the right thing to do to protect its employees and customers? If possible, the crisis response team should play out this scenario or work through another scenario to tighten up the communication plan as much as possible. Through the process of building out the communication plan, many companies will also discover operational deficiencies that can be taken care of before the actual crisis hits.

Company owners, managers and others are not thinking clearly when a crisis hits. Their frame of mind is naturally distracted and can impact how they respond, both physically and mentally, to a crisis. It’s enough that company leaders must lead their teams operationally through a crisis, but if they don’t already have a crisis communication plan in place then they will be even more strained with writing the right messaging, finding all of the contact information for stakeholders, gathering email distribution lists for employees and customers, managing online conversations and fielding media phone calls. In a crisis, a lot is going on, on many different fronts. Communication needs to be in order now.

One scenario to think about now is what to do if the company CEO that is supposed to be the company spokesperson tests positive for COVID-19? Who else on the team may be required to represent the company?

One solution to quickly respond in a crisis is to prebuild a dark landing page for your website that can host information for customers and media and be quickly launched in times of crisis. As with all technology, it should be tested ahead of time to make sure it works properly.

As a crisis communication professional, I see all too often what happens when a crisis occurs, and the company is not prepared to communicate proactively. The company is left scrambling to reactively communicate with their audiences and then battle wrong or inaccurate messaging, sent at the wrong time haphazardly. This is detrimental to the trusted brand the company has built day in and day out over the life of the business and in the food and beverage industry, customer trust makes or breaks the business. Prepare communication now and you will be thankful later. NP