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Amika Mobile booked spots at six trade shows in 2020 – massive, international events that used to be a significant source of the Ottawa-based emergency communications firm’s new business each year. Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and forced the company to find new ways to communicate with potential customers.

“At each one of these shows, we expect to get 40 or 50 potential customers,” says Suhayya (Sue) Abu-Hakima, Amika Mobile’s co-founder and chief executive officer. “This is a huge hit for tech businesses and security businesses. We had to figure out a way to adapt.”

Amika Mobile’s technology sends alerts to mobile devices during an emergency and is used by airports, stadiums and government clients. With public gatherings largely cancelled around the world, Ms. Abu-Hakima hired a marketing firm and worked to reposition the company’s technology for hospitals.

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Suhayya (Sue) Abu-Hakima is the co-founder and CEO of Amika Mobile.Handout

“It’s been fantastically productive so far,” she says, noting this is one of many ways Amika Mobile had to change its communications strategies — both internal and external — since COVID.

The company is far from alone. At a time when many peoples' work and home lives have been upended, experts say companies that communicate as though it’s business as usual risk losing the confidence of customers and commitment from employees.

Former public-relations executive Erin Bury, now CEO of Toronto-based online will-creation service Willful, noticed a lot of tone-deaf marketing and communication strategies in the early stages of the pandemic. Many businesses appeared slow to acknowledge that everything had changed, which led customers to believe they weren’t taking the pandemic seriously.

“It felt very weird in those days getting 20-per-cent off … emails,” from some companies, says Ms. Bury, the former managing director of PR firm Eighty-Eight. “You had to throw your marketing out the window; your entire communications plan out the window. Companies that did that fared very well, those who [didn’t] have just continued to struggle.”

Willful has benefited from the pandemic, seeing a rush in new customers as people grappled with their mortality. Ms. Bury says Willful might have gained even more business if it had played on those fears in its marketing, but instead chose to stay true to the company’s stated values of empathy and empowerment.

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Erin Bury, former public-relations executive and now CEO of Willful.

“It’s less about trying to capitalize and more about aligning with consumers at a stressful time,” she says, noting the company took a similar approach internally, speaking directly to employees about the stress many were feeling and encouraging staff to take mental-health days when necessary. Ms. Bury said she got feedback from employees who thought management handled the lockdown phase well, by communicating “in a way that made our staff feel genuinely supported but motivated to get their job done.”

Another takeaway for Willful has been the need to plan ahead for potential crises, Ms. Bury says. The company hired a PR firm a few months back to help create an issues-management plan that lays out responses to a number of potential setbacks such as data breaches, public-relations missteps or the death of an employee.

“In that plan, we have exactly how we’d respond, whether we’d respond to media requests, and draft emails we’d send out to our stakeholders. It’s a massive document. We can’t sit around and tell consumers to be prepared for the unexpected and not be prepared ourselves.”

Businesses that find themselves in fast-moving emergency situations, such as the spring lockdowns, should toe a line between staying in contact with customers and not over-promising, advises Calgary business consultant Shannon Pestun. She recommends just-in-time communication: sharing information about the immediate situation without speculating or planning too far ahead.

“If you don’t know what’s happening, don’t feel you have to give an answer,” says Ms. Pestun, founder and CEO of Pestun Consulting Inc., referring to businesses that made public reopening targets, only to find those dates were pushed back by government regulations. “Then you have to go back and rescind, and it adds more confusion to people who are trying to support you in this time.”

Businesses facing a lockdown or temporary layoffs should work to keep their employees engaged, even if they aren’t working at the moment, she says.

“Keeping them committed is really important. This is where great leaders really thrive. If they’re not working and you plan to bring them back, keep them part of the corporate culture,” Ms. Pestun says. “Leaders have a responsibility to keep us informed on what’s happening in the company; how we can pivot, what our new roles might look like.”

During the spring lockdown, some companies helped laid-off employees access government programs, she says, noting leaders that create opportunities for workers to ask questions or make suggestions tend to see higher levels of commitment.

“A lot of companies really involved their employees in the process ... so they didn’t feel left in the dark and discounted,” Ms. Pestun says.

Even though Amika Mobile is considered an essential service, Ms. Abu-Hakima says employees were working from home until June.

She worked to reopen the office after getting feedback that mental health among the team was deteriorating. The office now has a new layout to allow for physical distancing, and Ms. Abu-Hakima has also modified the type of conversations she has with her staff – something that has been an adjustment for everyone.

“I’ve been asking my employees, ‘what did you do on the weekend? Who was at the cottage? Are they part of your bubble? Are you doing anything with people who aren’t part of your bubble?,’” she says. “They are questions I personally feel are invasive, but [they are] really important for us if we want our office to stay open.”

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