Reopening after COVID-19: how to come back when the time comes

April 1, 2020

Critical takeaways

  • In one of our recent COVID-19 webinars, we tackled the difficult decision businesses are going to face when it is time to reopen and, even though that may be some time off, we feel that this is the time to start planning for that eventuality.
  • Unlike the decision to close, there won’t be a single ‘all clear’ and following the herd won’t do: this is going to be a business-by-business decision.
  • Here are the four key takeaways from the webinar to help you guide your leadership through this difficult decision.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been running a series of webinars on the effects of the Coronavirus and how businesses can respond to this challenging situation. A recent webinar tackled the difficult issue of what reopening for business will look like. This is going to be an enormously challenging decision for every business and one, as I’ll explain below, that most organizations will have to make on their own. Moreover, the consequences of getting this wrong will be huge for you, your staff and your customers. So even though it might feel early to be thinking about this, we believe that the time to think about a pathway out of trouble is on your way in.

To be clear, we aren’t suggesting that anyone should be reopening right now. In fact, at the time of writing in early April 2020, it seems clear that more US businesses, counties, and states should be putting restrictions in place. Even the White House has reversed its ambitious prediction that the US would be open again by Easter.

So, hard though it is, you should be taking whatever steps are necessary to prepare your business for several weeks of restrictions on movement and in-person interaction. 

But, we’re also huge advocates of always planning for what’s to come next, looking around corners, and trying to be proactive. Now we are in this uncertain middle period, adapting to our new normal, we feel that this is the best time to start working out what coming back looks like.



However, although the call for shutdowns was relatively centralized, the decision to get back to business will be wholly individual: there won’t be a single lifeguard who calls the ‘all clear’. Therefore, you and your senior leadership need to be thinking about the factors and conditions that will drive your decision to go back to work and what that looks like. Again, that’s not because we think that this is an imminent decision, but because we think it’s a decision that will take time, thoughtfulness and care.

Before we get to the decision-making, it’s worth highlighting what’s at stake by getting this wrong. 

Unlike the decision to shut down, where following the herd was ok, the decision to go back will have to be based on individual calculations. Public schools and government departments will be given direction but for businesses, this decision will be 100% yours. 

And unlike the decision to shut down which was based on an external risk, re-opening comes with significant strategic risks which you will own.  If you get it right, you will be seen as a leader in your field, caring for your staff, customers, and society as a whole. But in this instance, the reputational risks of reopening too soon are as great as the financial risks of staying closed too long or opening too late. So get it wrong and you’re going to have to endure the shame, reputational damage, and losses that you’d associate with any critical moment.

Without being overly hyperbolic, this decision to reopen will be one of the biggest and hardest decisions you and your leadership team will have to make in your careers. Therefore, we feel that it deserves careful consideration.

We cover this and a lot more during the webinar but here are the key points to keep in mind.

First, you should start by assessing your risks and the levers you control to manage these. Then, determine the best and worst-case scenarios as far as the effects of COVID-19 on your business. Remember, the effects of the pandemic are going to affect every business and organization differently so you have to think about how this affects your business, your staff, and your customers. We’ve been using our SPE framework to walk clients through this as a way to help focus their thinking and to also help differentiate between the strategic, preventable and external risks they face going back to business. 


Second, you should develop a strategy for what going back to business looks like in light of each scenario. Ideally, these decisions should be set into a framework that describes the conditions that you feel are appropriate for a return to business. Importantly, this decision should take into account the views of both the organization’s leadership and those who matter most, such as staff or customers. For example, the MLB agreed the criteria it will use in deciding when it is time for the season to open in consultation between MLB management, teams, and the players’ union.



MLB Logo © MLB   ESPN| 2020 


Once it’s built, a way to sense-test this framework is to ask ‘what would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization to do in this situation?’ Remember, the decision to reopen has moral, financial, social and reputational components each of which needs to be considered and balanced.



You also need to decide how you want to be seen: as a first mover, part of the herd, or slow and cautious? Part of that decision will be tied to how you want to brand yourself going forward but it will also have to be balanced by the moral, financial, social and reputational considerations.

Third, you need to decide which voices or ‘lifeguards’ you’re going to listen to. As we said, there isn’t going to be a single ‘all clear’ so you will have to determine your own reopening criteria. Your framework will lay these out but how will you know when those criteria have been met? There’s a patchwork of experts in the US and worldwide offering different versions of the truth, some of which vary widely. Part of this reflects the changing nature of the virus and some scientific uncertainty of how to best deal with the pandemic. But there are also times where the advice is plain wrong or self-serving. Therefore you need to decide who you will trust to help you identify the right time to reopen. 

And make sure that you are listening to internal voices too. Input from HR and Legal are critical in this decision-making as is your voice as a communicator, speaking truth to power

Fourth and finally, ABC: always be communicating. Speak to your staff, your customers, your peers. Tell them what you’re doing but also listen to what they are saying. What concerns do your staff have? Do people understand why you’ve taken the steps you have? What response are you getting when you discuss your re-opening framework? Remember, “the fundamental rules of sales and marketing have not gone on hold due to the crisis. They have been magnified” (Mark O’Brian, Newfangled).  Empathetically and generously educating the specific audience you serve is what marketing is and you need to do this, now more than ever.

This is a time for maximizing your communications and for CEOs to step up and get into the spotlight: your leadership team has to be on the front-line of your response.

I cover all of this in much more detail in the webinar but cannot stress enough the need to start planning now even though the decision to reopen is weeks, maybe months away.  As we get used to operating under ‘Corona Rules,’ we need to think about how we get out of those when the time is right. You need to have some internal conversations with your leadership team to understand the thresholds and decision-points you are tracking and the lifeguards that they’re going to listen to. 

So make sure that, as your organization is getting into this new way of operating, you’re also thinking about the right way to get out. 

Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.