This article was first published in the June 2020 China edition of
Accounting and Business magazine.

The keynote stories of the Covid-19 pandemic are and should always be about the devastating loss of lives and livelihood, the jolting economic and social disruptions, the courageous sacrifices and stout leadership that help ease the suffering, and the failures and frailties that worsen the pain. Nevertheless, there are many other aspects of how the world has dealt with this crisis, and each has something to teach us regarding resilience, adaptability and responsiveness.

Because I am in the news industry, it is especially interesting to me how businesses in Malaysia have been upping their external communication game ever since the world began to feel the deadly impact of the novel coronavirus first discovered in Wuhan, China. In the early days, when the virus was a mystery and most Malaysians were barely worried about an outbreak thousands of kilometres away, only a few local companies – mainly airlines and travel companies – needed to address what was going on in mainland China.

As it turned out, not enough was done because not enough was known until it was too late. Covid-19 reached Malaysia’s shores and drastically altered the content and tone of corporate messages. When more and more people in Malaysia tested positive for the virus, there was a rising frequency of statements from businesses linked to these cases. Often, the patients or their family members were employees and there was concern about the risk to others in the workplace, so companies were compelled to promptly assure stakeholders and the public that premises had been disinfected, other workers had been tested and temperature checks were a standard procedure. This is lesson number one about communication in the time of Covid-19: speed and transparency are the best ways to minimise misinformation and panic.

Things became a lot more intense when the government’s movement control order (MCO) came into force on 18 March. With unprecedented social distancing rules in place, businesses had to quickly learn to adjust to an unusually restrictive environment. This effort to protect public health incurs a huge economic cost: only a small number of businesses that provide essential services are allowed to open and must make do with fewer workers, while customers are not in a spending mood.

Naturally, there is a clamour for government assistance to bring relief to businesses in danger of collapsing. The industries and companies want funds, concessions, legislation, permission to operate during the MCO and sturdy post-MCO plans. But lobbying in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis cannot rely on social interaction like before. There is nothing new about issuing press releases, but what is different these days is the frequency of these statements, with a steady flow of appeals, explanations, retorts and calls for action.

After all, when so many struggle to stay afloat, the loudest and most persistent cries for help are the most likely to catch the rescuers’ attention.

Errol Oh is executive content officer of The Star.