Tips for small businesses to stay connected, afloat during coronavirus shutdown

The unprecedented public health shutdown due to coronavirus is posing serious challenges to small businesses, which in many cases have been forced to cease normal operations, but thinking outside the box can help them survive, according to a public relations and crisis communications expert.

Tammy Gordon, president of D.C.-based Verified Strategy, said small business owners — regardless of whether they’re providing goods or services — can find ways to weather current and future hardships and uncertainty.

“Right now, I think the most important thing for small businesses is to communicate with your customers,” Gordon said. “And think about how you can take your offerings to digital platforms.”

Gordon said small businesses should consider flexing, to stay connected with their customers now, and to help retain the customer until the coronavirus restrictions have passed.

“Not everything can be monetized in the same way,” Gordon said, noting that small businesses could minimize losses “by providing a digital offering.”

The tweaks can work, regardless of the type of business, Gordon said.

“If you’re a personal trainer, and you need to not physically be in the room with your people right now, how are you sending them workouts for home? How are you emailing them and checking on them, or texting them, to see how they’re faring at home?”

A variation in services provided, to comply with public health mandates or guidance, can help a small business endure.

“If you’re a coffee shop, don’t think about how you sell lattes and hand them to people in person,” Gordon said. “How can you offload your inventory and sell bags of coffee, or how can you deliver coffee and make that handoff in a safe way?”

Many small businesses rely on social media to drive sales, however Gordon said it’s important to ensure the messaging is appropriate during a national emergency.

“You need to reevaluate it every day,” she said. “Is my tone right, given what’s going on in the world?”

Tom Johnson, of the Hill Restaurant Group, spoke out about the restrictions on bars and restaurants in D.C. announced on Sunday.

He noted that many of his restaurants depend on customers standing or sitting at a bar in order to be financially successful. Based on the restrictions, after initially pushing back on the District government, he acquiesced and followed the order.

Johnson said he has 150 employees who he is hoping to put to work in some fashion, however, he won’t be able to pay them during a two-week forced closure.

“We’re trying to reevaluate,” he said Monday night, adding that he would like to see some help offered soon to small business owners who are trying to sustain themselves during the coronavirus outbreak.

“We don’t even know if we’re going to be able to make it through this, the company, when we took it over a year-and-half-ago, was almost in bankruptcy, I don’t know if there’s any coming back from it,” Johnson said.

Gordon said small businesses can be genuine with customers and that the current situation makes it difficult to predict the future.

“You just need to be communicating every day. Things are changing fast. And as long as you let your folks know what’s happening and how you’re keeping them safe, then I think you’re being responsible,” Gordon said.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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