The coronavirus crisis is evolving at pace, each day brings new information that changes the outlook, but what we do know from public health officials and NGOs is that it hasn’t peaked yet, and it’s likely to extend for several months to come.
The global scale and projected longevity of the crisis pose some unique communication challenges, but the fundamentals of crisis communications remain.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working with clients to fine-tune their crisis communications plans to ensure they are fit for the coronavirus. I’ve distilled the insights from this work into six practical things every business should be doing:
1. Implement your current crisis comms plan
If you’ve got a crisis communications plan, you’ve already done a lot of the thinking regarding when and how and to communicate with your stakeholders.
Most businesses have already activated their Crisis Management Team (CMT) and set up a ‘war room’ for the CMT to meet, review information and make decisions. Make sure the communications elements of the crisis plan are considered at every meeting. If you don’t have one, simply asking “Do we need to share this information/decision with anyone?” at the end of each meeting will cover the bases.
Specifically, in relation to employee communications, I recommend creating a sub-team of 2 – 3 people within your CMT that is accountable for employee communications – this team should be empowered to make rapid tactical decisions and issue updates without protracted and cumbersome review/approval.
2. Establish a credible source of information
The media is not a reliable source of information on this virus – they are in business of attracting the biggest audience not providing public health information. With so many sources of information it is advisable to select one (a public health body and or government organisation) as your single source of credible, up to date, information – they will consolidate expert opinion and the emerging science for you. In Ireland, the Health Service Executive’s dedicated coronavirus website is a good source of current and practical information: www2.hse.ie/conditions/coronavirus/coronavirus.html
Accept that you’ll never have perfect information – set out your best current view of the situation, so the CMT can learn and adapt company guidance and policies as the situation evolves. I suggest validating or updating this view every morning and having a large format hard copy on the wall in the war room.
3. Keep your employees informed on the company perspective
The media coverage on the virus is extensive, sometimes sensationalist and often conflicting, so employees will no doubt feel anxious and potentially confused.
As an employer is it not your job to share updates on how the outbreak is evolving (include links to official sources for this), but it is your job to make sure employees understand how the company views the evolving situation and the associated guidance for employees. It is critical to communicate guidance and policies promptly, clearly and concisely – don’t clutter it with lots of background, but do provide the rationale for decisions/guidance so employees can apply similar judgement when they encounter chartered territory.
I suggest you update employees after each meeting of the CMT, even if it is only to say that the CMT has met to review the latest information and that there are no changes to the policies and guidance to employees. This shows employees that the company is ‘on it’ and will be fast to communicate changes.
4. Put your employees’ information needs front and centre
There will be all sorts of business continuity actions that the CMT will be progressing, employees may need some big picture reassurance that these are in hand, but for the most part employees need really practical guidance on:
- What do to if they have symptoms:
In addition to the national guidance, be sure employees know what the company policy is if they are experiencing symptoms, have travelled from an affected area and/or have been in close contact with someone confirmed as having the virus e.g. what to do if they are on/off site, who to inform, what the policy is regarding sick pay if self-isolating.
Make sure that travel policies are clear in terms of where employees can travel to, for what reasons, what approval is required and when the policy will be reviewed.
- Remote working:
Be clear on your policies — where they apply, how they will work, and when they will be reviewed.
Some businesses are testing their capacity to have large-scale home working … asking all eligible employees to work remotely for a day to test your IT infrastructure is a good idea.
- Face-to-face meetings/’mass gatherings’:
There may be national guidance regarding ‘mass gatherings’ but it is important to let employees know what the company guidance is regarding face-to-face meetings, large gatherings e.g. townhalls, and canteen service.
- Visitors & contractors:
Be clear on what if any visitors/contracts are permitted on site and what actions hosts need to take to ensure they have been suitably risk-assessed before entering company premises.
o NB: If your business is open to the public, then clearly this becomes much more complex.
- What the company is doing to help:
If your business is doing something to help, make sure your employees know about it. For large healthcare and medical equipment companies the potential to support the global response may be obvious, but every business should consider this crisis in the context of their purpose and what they can/should be doing to contribute.
5. Leverage all channels for communicating with employees
If your business has an internal social media channel (e.g. Yammer or Workplace) then it is at times like these those channels come into their own, as it is possible to provide brief updates in the moment. You could consider creating a dedicated page or group for local coronavirus updates so people who aren’t in a position to check live updates have a ‘go to place’ for the latest company policies and guidance.
If you don’t have an internal social media channel, then you’ll need to find the right balance between providing timely updates and email overload. As with the dedicated page on a social media site, it is worth considering a dedicated local intranet page or information hub where employees can find the latest guidance and policies.
For employees who are not on-line, then the traditional channels of leader cascade, posters and digital signage are an important part of the mix. Make sure that you provide line mangers with talking points and are updating posters and digital screens, in parallel with the on-line updates.
You should also test your acute crisis comms channels e.g. if you have to close the business premises at short notice/out of hours. Bulk text messages are usually the preferred channel for this, so check that you have a mobile phone number listed for all employees.
6) Note learnings and adjust your Crisis Management Plan
Crisis simulation exercises are great to test preparedness, but there is nothing like a live crisis to evaluate your crisis management plan, identify gaps and understand how the stress and uncertainty of a live crisis influence behaviours.
As this crisis is unfolding, document actions, responses and learnings so they can be reviewed and evaluated later. Rapidly evolving situations expose weaknesses in your crisis plan, so don’t miss this opportunity to learn and improve your plan to ensure you are better prepared for the next crisis, or an escalation of this one.