CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS FOR CORONAVIRUS & COVID-19

Many clients have reached out for assistance in navigating internal and external communication strategies both in preparation for potential COVID impact, or advice on how to respond to an incident.

If your inbox is like mine, during the past week, the volume of emails about the virus has exploded.

Dealing with a pandemic such as coronavirus is uncharted territory for most organizations. 

With the World Health Organization declaring coronavirus a global pandemic, these are tough times for businesses large and small, and they’re going to get tougher in the coming weeks and months.

Effective crisis leadership requires a steady hand and well-honed communication skills to keep stakeholders informed and focused.

Communicators should always advise a cautious, thoughtful and truthful strategy to address any crisis. This is especially important during a public health concern.

The safety and well-being of workers affected by COVID-19 is the first priority.  It is important for companies to have a Crisis Management Plan, that covers incident management and stakeholder communications.

Some companies have dedicated teams who prepare year-round for crisis communications in situations just like this. But many smaller businesses do not. When dealing with a matter of public health and safety it is really important to be proactive.  It is also very important to recognize the importance of establishing facts accurately during the crisis.

A crisis like COVID-19 can have an impact on every part of the business. In response to COVID-19, companies are developing their contingency plans quickly.

CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS

Companies and leaders need to be reliable and credible in sharing information and answering questions. Messaging during a crisis should be authentic. It’s important to address all the organization’s stakeholders such as employees, customers and suppliers.  The onus is on you to make sure your message is essential and useful to your stakeholders. 

First and foremost, it’s important to communicate early and often, even if you don’t have all of the details or don’t necessarily have substantive or numerous updates.

Culture: Executives are showcasing the resiliency of their organizations, demonstrating empathy, and providing reassurance.

  • Be transparent. Respect builds and reinforces credibility. 
  • Be truthful. Honesty is fundamental to gaining and maintaining public trust.
  • Be timely. Establish a sound and regular communication path as the authentic and accurate source.

In times of crisis, it’s critical to reassure your audiences you’re aware of the situation, monitor for updates, and then share any action you would like them to take. 

Part of your communications strategy will be focused on ensuring the safety and security of your workforce. Employees, or the potentially impacted communities they work in, will be looking to your organization for a response, guidance and regular communications. Review your travel rules, HR policies, first-aid plans now, and create ways to exercise the arrangements.

CRISIS MANAGEMENT PLAN

Best practices and considerations for confidently navigating through the coronavirus crisis:

  • Task Force: Establish a Task Force from different functions to assess your organization’s coronavirus needs and risks. The team should include representatives from your key functions, including marketing, finance, operations, human resources, sales, legal, health, safety and more. Identify your team’s assignments and roles and establish a regular meeting schedule.
  • Operations: Create an Operational response team.
  • Craft a stakeholder communications strategy:  Develop and deliver the company’s internal and external messaging: Who are the key stakeholders with need for information from your organization? Communications are time sensitive. What information do they need, who needs it first and for what purpose? In times of crisis, it is vital the tone remain empathetic, calm, and sincere.  Only specific, appointed people from your organization’s COVID-19 task force should be communicating about the company’s situation with employees and external audiences.
    • Customer Communications: These are the lifeblood of your organization’s business and mission. Maintaining their trust and confidence is critical. Let your customers know what steps your business has taken to protect them from exposure to the virus. Provide resources for additional online information, and let customers know how they can get answers to their questions. Create an FAQ document with business questions your customers will ask. 
    • Employee Communications:  Employees need a source of truth, especially in times of crisis and misinformation. With crisis communications, it’s imperative to reach your entire workforce, whether they’re in the office or front line, with the right information at the right time. The need for connection to management is amplified in a crisis and exacerbated by social distancing and remote work arrangements. Employees want to know how their organizations are handling the outbreak. They are relying on their employers to share accurate and helpful information to keep themselves and their families safe. Messages should be focused on reassuring employees that actions are being taken and also focus on encouraging best practices to stay healthy (educate employees about the virus, including: how it is spread and what they can do to protect themselves and others around them and when to self-isolate). It is important to be prepared for questions and address employee comments directly and promptly. 
    • Media Communications: Develop a plan for dealing with the media. There should be one department or person assigned to working with the media. Everyone should know organization-wide that all media inquiries and outreach should run through that person or team—no exceptions. It’s critical that your messages to the media align with the messages you’re sending to your most important audiences—your customers, employees, and board of directors. 
  • Monitor the effectiveness of communications to different audiences. 
  • Do a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threat) analysis.
  • Test your Business Continuity Plan. Business continuity is something organizations should constantly test, particularly in healthcare. For example, it is important to ensure that employees are adequately cross trained because if you do have employees call in sick, you have to ensure you can fill whatever skill gap exists. Determine and prioritize the needs of your organization should an employees be impacted by COVID-19.
  • Incident Management Plan: Develop an Incident Management Plan.
  • Work from Home Plans: Enable employees to work remotely and reinforce IT infrastructure to support these arrangements. As companies work to implement revisions to standard operating procedures, such as working from home, sick pay, travel cancellations or facility closures, executives should keep employees up to date online.

Meet stakeholders where they are – online, on their phones, on social media.

In times of crisis, it’s best to use multiple forms of communication. People have so much information coming to them quickly. If you want them to pay attention, consider email, website and social media updates while also planning a weekly conference call. 

Look straight to the source for up to date information. As with any rapidly-changing situation, today’s developments can quickly become outdated. Every day that passes brings more information with which to assess potential risks and determine prudent actions.

To ensure the content is relevant, monitor the conversation closely.

Be prepared to respond to any other COVID-19 developments or updates so you can keep your employees and customers safe and healthy. Monitor communications updates from your industry’s leading associations, as well as public health organizations.

It is also important to plan the longer-term horizon.  It is critical to plan for what happens not just today, but to plan for the future. Now is the time to run scenarios to create a crisis plan that’s fit for your business. An emphasis on continuing crisis management and communication is key to reducing and addressing the risks to the business that emerge. Taking a longer-term perspective can help your company emergence from the crisis even stronger and more sustainable.

Cindy Ferrie

Cindy Ferrie Marketing Strategist

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