Bird flu returns to China: Crisis communications – are you ready?

A collective shiver went through Hong Kong last week after it was revealed a deadly new strain of bird flu had broken out in China.  Coming on the tenth anniversary of SARS, this inevitably brought back memories of an unhappy chapter when Hong Kong went into lockdown and paralysis.

For one of the most congested cities on earth it was a fraught period as companies and individuals adapted to a semi-quarantined reality.  Businesses had to make tough everyday decisions – do they stay open, close or evacuate? Should staff work from home or be rotated to limit the fallout from any infection?

So are we in for a re-run with this latest avian flu, H7N9?  It still looks too early to tell. But it’s not too early to start being prepared.

This means not just keeping close tabs on how the virus is developing, but dusting down crisis communication and action plans for all eventualities.

The good news at least, is the H7N9 virus has only been found in a relatively small number of humans. Less reassuring, however, is it appears quite deadly.

So far the wider market reaction has been relatively constrained, although both international and Chinese airline stocks have been under pressure.

Expect the potential threat to quickly escalate if we see either human to human transmission of the virus, or cases turning up outside mainland China.

But even if it’s just China going into shutdown, there will be plenty enough disruption. The mass onshoring of manufacturing in the past decade means it’s rare to find products not part of a mainland Chinese supply chain.

A priority today is making sure crisis management and business continuity plans are up to date.  This should also include estimates of the potential risk to businesses and how to communicate with your employees, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders.

For larger companies this could even mean assembling a corporate-wide, flu management team with people from business, medical, legal, crisis management and communications functions.

Any plan must include, at a minimum, procedures for sharing medical advice – when to stay at home and when to seek treatment.  Do you have plans for travel and business continuity? Can you maintain client contact without physical meetings? You want to avoid the situation one client found himself in during SARs – being asked to write a “key man” business continuity plan by the UK head office in the middle of a pandemic. Hardly sensitive.

Ultimately, it is during crisis that the mettle of companies and top leaders is really shown, especially when it comes to dealing with the health of employees.  Perhaps the Chinese symbol for “crisis” tells it best – ‘dangerous opportunity’. But that means first being prepared and seeking expert counsel.

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