When it comes to communications – especially in a time of crisis – preparation is key. But how do you prepare for something like what we are experiencing today? Even if you have a crisis communications plan in place (which, if you don’t, you should), odds are it doesn’t include “global pandemic” as a scenario. While the COVID-19 pandemic is uncharted territory, far-reaching and seemingly ever-changing, the core principles of crisis communications still apply.
As you and your organization explore this uncharted territory, we want to share the best practices we’ve cultivated over the past 30 years of helping clients prepare for and communicate through crises – and what we’ve cultivated recently, during the last couple of months of helping organizations communicate about COVID-19.
WHAT TO ANTICIPATE
While every crisis is different, and COVID-19 is certainly no exception, there are a few things you can always anticipate in a time of crisis.
EXPECT UNCERTAINTY: In any crisis, especially one unfolding and evolving as quickly as COVID-19, there will be uncertainty, and information will be in high demand as the situation and the “facts” change rapidly. Identify and rely on trusted sources of information and always avoid speculation. You won’t have all the answers, and that’s okay. Be transparent and focus on communicating what you do know.
LEADERSHIP MATTERS: The impact of COVID-19 is far-reaching and ever-changing, and it’s testing the preparedness – or lack of preparedness – of organizations large and small. While it can be tempting to panic, now more than ever, organizations need to be the voice of calm, providing proactive, timely, reliable information to stakeholders. How you respond in the first hours and days of a crisis sets the tone and will impact your reputation – both internally and externally. It is critical that you:
- Put people first
- Respond quickly and accurately
- Show empathy and compassion
- Be as transparent as possible
- Become the trusted source of information for your key audiences
- Stick to the facts
- Share important information in simple, declarative sentences
- When appropriate, follow the authorities’ lead
HOW TO COMMUNICATE: ESSENTIAL WORKERS
If yours is an essential business and you have employees continuing to physically come to work, communication and preparedness must be a top priority as you anticipate and prepare for a potential COVID-19 positive employee.
PRIORITIZE EMPLOYEES: Your employees must be your priority, and you should do everything you can to keep them updated and informed. In uncertain times, transparency builds trust. When needed, you must move swiftly to inform and educate your employees should COVID-19 make it into your workplace.
BREAK DOWN BARRIERS: Communicating about COVID-19 crosses many disciplines and departments including HR, communications and legal / compliance. It is important that all these functions come together – perhaps through the creation of a task force – to ensure that accurate and timely information is shared, reviewed and communicated.
COMMUNICATE ABOUT WHAT YOU ARE DOING – AND OFTEN: Create a steady stream of communication with employees that provides relevant updates and reminders about policies and best practices. Show employees that you value their well-being by demonstrating the various ways you are addressing and prioritizing their safety. Consider a blog post or landing page on your website dedicated to your response to COVID-19 to evoke transparency and build trust with external audiences, clients and the media.
CREATE TEMPLATES: Think through all the ways COVID-19 could impact your business (i.e. a positive employee, an outbreak leading to a closure, furloughs or layoffs, product delays, etc.), and determine how and to who you would communicate in each of those scenarios. Then, develop the template materials you’ll need for each situation. Doing so will help you efficiently and effectively communicate when time is of the essence.
LEARN AND ADAPT: Listen to your employees. Ask for feedback, encourage questions / suggestions, and work to incorporate them into your communications approach.
HOW TO COMMUNICATE: WORK FROM HOME
If your workforce is working remotely, more robust internal communications strategies will be even more important for your organization. And, if furloughs and / or layoffs are necessary for your business, it will be critical that you carefully and intentionally communicate with employees. But, in general, communications with a remote team may focus more on the need to foster a positive, engaging and productive work environment. A few things to consider:
MAINTAIN AS MUCH ROUTINE AS POSSIBLE: In these uncertain times, it’s important to try to maintain as much stability and normalcy as possible. To do so, adhere to your routine as much as possible. If you regularly hold all-staff meetings, brainstorms or one-on-one touch bases, move them to virtual meetings using FaceTime, Zoom or Google Hangouts.
KEEP UP THE CULTURE: What is the atmosphere of your office during a typical work week? While not being in the same physical space can change team dynamics, it’s important to do everything you can to maintain and build your company culture.
PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES FOR TEAM BUILDING: Even if your team has worked together for a while, encourage get-to-know-you activities, reinforcing thoughtful relationship building and unleashing creativity.
PROVIDE RESOURCES FOR MENTAL AND PHYSICAL HEALTH: Providing co-workers with resources to take care of their physical and mental health is increasingly important. Make sure your employees have easy access to opportunities for mental health improvement like virtual counseling or a meditation app.
BE AN EXAMPLE: It’s okay to be anxious or have difficulty focusing. Be transparent about these challenges, and how you are working to overcome them. Encourage your teammates to own what they’re feeling and work together to find creative ways to overcome their anxieties.
When we summarize our approach to communications, especially in the midst of a crisis, we tell our clients to just “do the right thing.” Organizations that do the right thing see a crisis as an opportunity to show their true colors and bring people together and as a result, they build relationships with internal and external stakeholders alike.
Written by James Madlom, CEO of Mueller Communications, Inc.