Guest column

Houston entrepreneur shares communication tips for today's coronavirus environment

When faced with a crisis, it's essential to deliver clear, authentic messages to your target audiences. Getty Images

The reality for business owners is that everything you say matters; your words are reverberated and felt throughout the company and all of your stakeholders.

During times of crisis, your voice is amplified to the max, and people listen to every word you have to say, which is why — if not completely thought-through — your voice can breed misinformation, confusion and stress. As we face the increasing uncertainty in our community due to the spread of COVID-19, it's critical for business owners to say the right things, to the right people, that will inform and motivate, and use their presence and organization to be leaders within the community.

Practicing what we preach, we understand that as communication experts, it is our mission and responsibility during this time to help our local business community. We are putting our money where our mouth is and for the last week have been offering free communication and marketing consultation to any business in need.

So, what is top of mind to our team right now, as we work with these businesses? Besides following recommendations from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention to curb the virus's spread, companies should actively be communicating to all stakeholders about the impact COVID-19 is having or could have on operations. Here are a few dos and don'ts to get you started.

Offer valuable tips to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, but we all know to wash our hands by now.

You have to make sure that you are communicating valuable information with internal and external stakeholders — but through your own authentic voice. Offer suggestions on how to "social distance" or use your service/product remotely.

Internal stakeholders need to understand what's hard facts, what's soft facts (opinions and feelings) and what's just hearsay. They need to understand clear expectations when working from home and employees need to feel safe, accommodated and heard. Externally, be sensitive to what your customers and the community at large are going through and update your business practices and communications accordingly.

Communication with customers can be in an email, but you can also connect through text, through an online chat, via infographics or memes on social media, or an "on-brand" (and possibly witty!) reminder on what social distance may mean.

Don't stay silent — even if you don't know everything.

Don't let others control your company's narrative. As humans, we naturally fill in gaps in communication to understand what's going on around us. Rather than letting people assume information about your business, get in front of the conversation and share real-time updates as you adjust business-as-usual.

Consider alternative ways to reach external audiences and vice versa.

What happens if the majority of your customer acquisition model is door-to-door and no one wants to open the door to a stranger, or you have a centralized call center to handle customer service complaints, but these employees are now all working from home? Now is the time to reconsider how you'll engage with your audiences and win customers.

We recommend a significant shift to digital acquisition as people are going to be spending more and more time online in the coming weeks from home and there is a ripe opportunity to stay top of mind through targeted display campaigns and send interested customers to your website.

Create a proactive plan for shut downs.

Coronavirus is still an emerging, rapidly evolving situation and we have no idea what could happen but create contingency plans and have a crisis comms plan ready to deploy. Think through possible scenarios (closures, supply limitations, employee diagnosis, etc.) and have social media posts, email blasts and internal messaging ready to deploy should worst case scenario occur.

What your business says is just as important as who says it.

A spokesperson is your organization's mouthpiece. Choosing the right person is just as important as saying the right thing. Without the right person to speak on behalf of your organization, your message could be lost — or worse, they choke.

Your spokesperson should be credible, empathetic and authoritative.


Bottom line: When faced with a crisis, it's essential to deliver clear, authentic messages to your target audiences, stay true to your brand voice and position yourself as a leader – both internally and externally. Your company will thank you later.

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Allie Danziger is the founder and president of Houston-based Integrate Agency, which focuses on digital marketing and public relations.

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Building Houston

 
 

SurgWise is giving surgical teams the right support for hiring. Photo via Getty Images

A surgeon spends over a decade in school and residency perfecting their medical skills, but that education doesn't usually include human resources training. Yet, when it comes to placing candidates into surgical programs, the hiring responsibilities fell on the shoulders of surgeons.

Aimee Gardner, who has her PhD in organized psychology, saw this inefficiency first hand.

"I worked in a large surgery department in Dallas right out of graduate school and quickly learned how folks are selected into residency and fellowship programs and all the time that goes into it — time spent by physicians reviewing piles and piles of like paper applications and spending lots and lots and of hours interviewing like hundreds of candidates," Gardner tells InnovationMap. "I was just really shocked by the inefficiencies from just a business and workforce perspective."

And things have only gotten worse. There are more applicants hitting the scene every year and they are applying to more hospitals and programs. Future surgeons used to apply for 20 or so programs — now it’s more like 65 on average. According to her research, Gardner says reviewing these applications cost lots of time and money, specifically $100,000 to fill five spots annually just up to the interviewing phase of the process.

Five years ago, Gardner came up with a solution to this “application fever,” as she describes, and all the inefficiencies, and founded SurgWise Consulting, where she serves as president and CEO.

"We help provide assessments to help screen competencies and attributes that people care about," Gardner says. "(Those) are really hard to assess, but really differentiate people who really thrive in training in their careers and people who don't."

Aimee Gardner is the CEO and president of Houston-based SurgWise. Photo via surgwise.com

These are the non-technical skills, like the professionalism, interpersonal skills, and communication. While SurgWise began as a service-oriented consulting company, the company is now ready to tap technology to expand upon its solution. The work started out of Houston Methodist, and SurgWise is still working with surgery teams there. She says they've accumulated tons of data that can be leveraged and streamlined.

"We're now pivoting from a very intimate client approach to a more scalable offering. Every year we assess essentially around 80 percent of all the people applying to be future surgeons — those in pediatric surgery, vascular surgery, and more,” Gardner says. “We’ve used kind of the last five years of data and experiences to create a more scalable, easy-to-integrate, and off-the-shelf solution.”

Gardner says her solution is critical for providing more equity in the hiring process.

“One of our goals was to create more equitable opportunities and platforms to assess folks because many of the traditional tools and processes that most people use in this space have lots of opportunity for bias and a high potential for disadvantaging individuals from underrepresented groups," she says. "For example, letters of recommendation are often a very insider status. If you went to some Ivy League or your parents were in health care and they know someone, you have that step up from a networking and socioeconomic status standpoint."

Personal statements and test scores are also inequitable, because they tend to be better submissions if people have money for coaching.

SurgWise hopes to lower the number of programs future surgeons apply to too to further streamline the process. She hopes to do this through an app and web tool that can matchmake people to the right program.

“Our ultimate goal is to create a platform for applicants to obtain a lot more information about the various places to which they apply to empower them to make more informed decisions, so that they don't have to apply to a hundred places," Gardner says. "We want to essentially create a match-style app that allows them to input some data and tell us 'here's what I'm looking for here are my career goals and any preferences I have.'”

While that tool is down the road, Gardner says SurgWise is full speed ahead toward launching the data-driven hiring platform. The bootstrapped company hopes to raise early venture funding this summer in order to hire and grow its team.

“As we continue to consider this app that I talked about and some of the other opportunities to scale to other specialties we're gonna start looking for a series A funding later this summer.”

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