Earlier this week, locally transmitted coronavirus cases with no recent travel history to China or links with other confirmed cases emerged. As a result, authorities have raised the DORSCON risk assessment framework to orange. The reaction from locals has generally not been pretty. We’ve all seen the images circling around social media so there’s not much value in beating a dead horse.

Unfortunately, herd mentality is taking large strides on an individual level. It would be mighty risky and dangerous should this mentality also take precedence for organisations. What we want to do here is to reset our vantage point. To do so, we have to take a closer look and understand the impact this coronavirus crisis is having on running businesses.

Communication is key

A process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behaviour”

If we were to view this through the prism of a running organisation, one key principle keeps resurfacing. Communication. Amidst times of crisis – perceived or otherwise – this process of transmitting information is very much hindered. The understanding of a common system between information relayer and information receiver tends to be tested. All the more crucial it is then that communication remains clear and open. To all audiences, be it employee or event participant. Cancellation or reevaluation of events are bound to happen. The coronavirus epidemic is out of the organisation’s locus of control. In order to dispel or minimise the likelihood of disappointment, confusion and unrest, clear communication has to be the organisation’s number one priority action.

Knowing when to cancel or postpone events

What’s been making rounds in the news lately is the various responses different events have given as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. The Singapore Airshow 2020 chose to proceed on as planned after internal review. Other large scale events like NATAS Travel 2020 have been postponed while some like HSBC Golf have been cancelled. 

The variety of options taken by these organisers leads us nicely down the path of discerning the next course of action for an organisation when faced with such a predicament. Deciding on whether to cancel, postpone or proceed with an event has to be more than simply a gut feeling. Identifying the right cues for cancellation or postponement is vital.

Low attendee count

With regard to attendees, the cues will appear a little different for each organisation. It all depends on the goal of your event. Most events have a break-even point as organisations look to make a Return on Investment (ROI) on say, ticket sales. So, there is a very tangible number of attendees you “must” have. With the coronavirus outbreak becoming a genuine concern for many, this inevitably impacts day-to-day decisions. It is completely understandable for there to be apprehension among the public when it comes to say, attending a large scale event. If current ticket sales or sign up rates are way off your intended ROI in the lead up to the event, cancelling or postponing might turn out to be the better alternative.

Pull out from speakers

Similarly, this can be difficult to avoid as well. If attendees are predicted to react as such, chances are speakers/guests would react in a similar manner. Having backup speakers/guests on hand would be the customary solution to this problem. What matters here is how central or indispensable a given speaker/guest is to your event. A key speaker/guest dropping out could potentially increase the likelihood of cancelling or postponing the event.  

Health and safety

In light of the current situation we find ourselves in, health and safety has to be our #1 priority. This has to override all other considerations mentioned previously. While we do not want to overreact or have this epidemic influence our every decision, pragmatism needs to come into play as well. Keeping up to date with the news and taking cues from the actions of governmental agencies becomes a necessity. 

Cancelling gracefully

Unforeseen circumstances are part and parcel of event planning. Having sat through countless meetings with your relevant stakeholders, it could be that all signs and cues point towards event cancellation. Should you reach this stage, it is important to note that cancellation of an event has to be handled gracefully – even in the context of a virus outbreak. A PR nightmare is what everyone wants to avoid.

Develop cancellation messaging

Unifying the cancellation messaging to your targeted audience is fundamental. This starts with listing out the various channels you wish to relay said message – social media, website, email, the whole lot. Consistency across these channels is the main aim. No one wants to be caught in a dilemma where attendees misunderstand the reasons behind the cancellation of an event. For that reason, developing a cancellation messaging has to go through internal approval first. This is likely to take a couple of drafts and reviews.

Enacting cancellation messaging

Once approved, notify your target audience through the chosen channels. Whether the event is meant for a group of 10 or its scale matches that of the Singapore Airshow, professionalism comes in the form of being transparent and completely open. Should paid tickets be part of your event, that has to stop immediately. Same goes for any advertising or marketing campaigns. Your ticket buyers, or potential ticket buyers even, becomes your number one priority at this point. Some immediate backlash or negative response is to be expected. Hence, focus on explaining the reasoning behind the decision to cancel. At your discretion, have people with negative responses contact you privately through direct messaging to ease tension. The importance of constant social media presence at this stage should not be understated. It allows the opportunity for time critical responses to keep everyone involved in the loop. 

Closing words

As mentioned earlier, businesses should refer to the latest health advisories issued by government agencies, such as MOH or MOM, as this situation evolves. This can then act as a framework to help determine what decision to make with regards to an upcoming event or business continuity. Clear communication to all parties involved minimises the chance of any disruption. 

By no means is this article exhaustive but we do hope that it has provided you with valuable insights into how to best respond as an organisation, in light of the coronavirus outbreak. On a more individual level, let us do our best as a community to start being kinder to one another. Finger pointing and being disillusioned won’t get us very far. As stated by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a speech earlier this week, “fear can do more harm than the virus itself”. On that note, we do hope everyone stays calm, safe and healthy!