Crisis Communications Planning and COVID-19: 5 Tips for Small Businesses


Amanda Haines Lazeski

On Thursday, March 12, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak a pandemic. Since then, the situation has escalated hour by hour, with federal, provincial and municipal guidelines changing the way we work and live in Canada. With more than 370 confirmed and presumed cases of COVID-19 in Canada reported as of 9 a.m. ET today, the window is closing to craft an effective and meaningful communications strategy to help protect your staff, brand, and community.

This is perhaps the first time that you and your business have faced a challenge of this magnitude. As the pandemic continues to escalate, here are five tips to help you navigate these trying times. 

1. Keep Calm

With news channels reporting on COVID-19 24/7, and push notifications coming fast and furious on all our mobile devices, it’s hard not to feel as though the future is bleak. While I don’t have a crystal ball to predict what the future holds (I wish), I can tell you that keeping a level head in trying times will get you through what the coming days will bring. Avoid knee jerk reactions – remember, they may have ramifications for your business long-term. Your customers will be there when this is over, as long as you handle this situation as proactively as possible. 

Take this time to take care of yourself. Remember to breathe, take breaks from work and the never-ending news cycle, and remember that this too will pass. It may hurt. But it’s not forever.

2. Stay Informed

Get the facts straight from the source. Instead of relying on social media or word of mouth for crucial health advice and business guidelines, refer to federal, provincial and municipal sources as well as the World Health Organization, which are all easily accessed online. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of information that becomes less and less attributable to reliable sources. Make sure the news you’re consuming, sharing, and using to make important personal and professional decisions, is accurate and trustworthy.

3. Be Transparent

There is no playbook for what’s transpiring around the world right now. No doubt, mistakes will be made in your marketing communications strategy – but being transparent is a surefire way to build trust and credibility with your staff and consumers. Be up front with them about what’s happening and what you’re doing in your business to address the COVID-19 outbreak. Things for you to consider include:

  • Remote work. Let your staff work from home so they can safely self-isolate.
  • Systems. Share the systems and processes you’re using to make the transition to remote work successful. At Reformation, we’re partial to Basecamp, G Suite for Business, and Zoom.
  • Closures. Communicate planned closures – mandated or not – and choose a targeted reopening date. The situation is fluid, so it may change, but it’s good to give your team and consumers a timeline for your reopening.
  • Salaries & Benefits. If you’re closing, talk about what you’re doing to mitigate risks and losses for your staff. From paid leave to maintaining their benefits, your stakeholders want to know how you’re taking care of your people.

If you feel uncertain or fearful, that’s understandable. Don’t be afraid to get vulnerable and share your emotions during this time. You’re likely to find plenty of support in your community.

4. Stay Flexible

It’s very likely that you will need to make immediate changes to your existing marketing communications plans. Consider the following when adjusting to the current conditions:

  • Pause all irrelevant media and influencer outreach. Limit press releases and other media/influencer engagement to announcements surrounding the pandemic – for example, event cancellations, promotional postponements, and community initiatives designed to support the cause. Otherwise, it’s more than likely that your outreach may be ignored, read as tone-deaf, and result in zero earned coverage or brand mentions.

  • Build your community. This is the time to give back and support your community, not take advantage and profit from the situation. If you run a restaurant, consider how you can keep your doors open and keep feeding people by promoting partnerships with delivery services, or establish your own. If you have a retail business, think about adding e-commerce to your website (if not already in place), and offer a special incentive for customers to shop from home, like a promo code for small business awareness. Finally, talk about your community and how you’re supporting the effort – from continuing to pay your staff even in the event of a closure, to setting up a fund to benefit the WHO, your stakeholders have a real interest in what you’re doing to get through this time.

  • Consider your messaging. Be sensitive to the current climate and adjust your social media posting schedule and messaging accordingly. Although humour is going to help us get through this, consider whether that meme you found hilarious will read the same way to your followers, or if you really should be writing tongue-in-cheek captions that poke fun at the pandemic. Be sensitive to other people’s perceptions and remember, this is a very real thing that is likely going to get worse before it gets better.

5. Ask for Help

We’re all learning as we go, but in times like this, we have to support one another. If we can offer you or your brand any further assistance, please get in touch with us at We are offering 100% free public relations, social media, and communications consultations to as many Canadian small businesses as we can (50 employees or fewer). As we may field a high volume of emails, please allow 24 hours for a response. We will do our absolute best to help as many companies as we can during this time.

Stay safe, and be well.


Amanda Haines Lazeski
Founder + Principal

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