March 02, 2020

Communicating in a Time of Coronavirus

Though the world has been watching the Coronavirus since China took dramatic steps to limit the spread of this new virus, the Center for Disease Control’s sobering press conference earlier this week has put the issue front and center for businesses of all types.

Our many healthcare clients have been implementing their existing crisis plans — both in terms of operations and communications — for pandemics. But for most businesses, planning for communications needs in advance of a possible pandemic are not something they have contemplated. 

A few things to consider:

1.      Reaching your key audiences quickly: The fast moving nature of this situation may require rapid-decision making and communications. What systems do you have in place to reach your employees, customers, suppliers/partners and other important audiences? Will they work in this circumstance? How and when will you use your social media channels to share information? There are any number of channels you can use, from internal Slack or Yammer and dedicated Coronavirus intranet pages for employees to an outward facing web page, corporate LinkedIn account and e-blasts for external audiences. In addition, alert systems that allow you to text your employees may well be a wise investment. Whatever you use, make sure your audiences know how you plan to communicate with them.
(A word about logistics: make sure several designated people have the keys to the castle -- the e-mail distribution list, the capacity to update the intranet, the passwords for social accounts. Redundancy could be key if the person who is normally responsible for these tasks becomes ill.)

2. Knowing the goal of the communication: There are several possible needs that a business could have at this time, based on the audience. Knowing the goal of the communication will assure that it is concise and effective.
For example, to limit risk to your organization, you may want to reinforce to your employees best practices and organizational policies around infection control and good hygiene, as well as steps they should take if they are ill and believe they may have been exposed to the Coronavirus. For your customers, a B2B manufacturing firm may want to provide assurance that business continuity plans are in place and a facility that welcomes many guests (such as a gym, event facility or daycare provider) should highlight the steps they are taking to increase infection control, monitor the situation, train employees, etc.

3. Anticipate different operational phases and the communications needs that accompany those steps: There are likely to be several phases to this topic, each requiring a different type of communication. At this time, most US organizations are in a “watch and wait” moment, doubling down on steps to limit risk. As more cases are reported in this country, companies will likely want to anticipate and share the steps they will take if the virus requires measures that impact or disrupt normal operations. Finally, should extreme measures force businesses to close or limit operations, you may need to ask employees to work from home or otherwise change behavior of employees, customers and other parties. Anticipate that they will need a regular process for receiving updating information; have a proactive plan for sharing information and communicate it as early as possible.

3a. The communications team should work closely with the operations-driven crisis and business continuity teams to assure that all operational steps have companion communications plans. This type of advance, collaborative planning will allow your organization to have the communications tools in place to move quickly to effectively implement your emergency response plans from an operations point of view.

4. Make sure your leadership team members all know the process for making decisions: Nothing causes more confusion than a single member of the leadership team or even a site-based facility lead making a quick decision that is inconsistent with company policy. Establish a routine (and possibly daily) process for gathering the leadership team and assuring that all decision makers are up to date on emergency plans, action steps and decision-making processes.

5. Assure that communications are fact-based:  At a time when social media has accelerated the old-fashioned rumor mill and makes it incredibly easy for inaccurate information to be shared, it is critical that you go above and beyond to be fact based. Avoid speculation and guessing what may happen next. Follow the CDC and WHO communications carefully, consider engaging your own public health experts to advise the company, consult with local public health officials before making major decisions and identify other outside resources you may need to weather a potential storm.     
Also, even as there are business imperatives that must be met and timely information to be shared, a compassionate tone is critical. Your employees and partners may be experiencing serious health and family issues, worries about the economic impact, and fears for their community. It is smart to acknowledge this and offer support.

6. Monitor all your communications channels carefully and respond in a timely fashion: We have more ways to communicate and engage audiences directly than ever before; but these tools fail if we aren’t using them for two-way communications. Pay attention to what your audiences are saying and find ways to address their questions and concerns. If your Facebook feed is seeing lots of comments, either create a post that addresses those concerns or answer in the stream (though try to do so in bulk, instead of creating the expectation that you have the resources to answer each question individually).
Finally, even as you are doing everything you can to anticipate potential risks, prepare operationally and engage your audiences with proactive communications, try to avoid panic. A measured, fact-based tone is key to maintaining the confidence of your key audiences.