Communicating about COVID-19 Coronavirus

By: Andrea Trapani

Over the past 72 hours, the conversation about novel coronavirus has dominated local, regional and national news.

We’ve seen companies large and small institute foreign and domestic travel bans, make tough decisions to cancel revenue-generating events, pull out of attending and sponsoring conferences, and roll out major operational changes, all while finding the right words to communicate to employees, clients and the general public.

For business leaders, this is a moment of truth. While perspectives may vary about the true short- and long-term impact of the pandemic, it goes without saying that employees are looking to their leadership for guidance and direction on how to process, digest and interpret the constant flood of news about COVID-19. Now is the time to communicate your plans to employees, team members, and eventually, clients and customers.

Earlier this week, the Identity leadership team gathered in a conference room to discuss our own strategy for addressing what is, essentially, an unpredictable and unknown situation. We needed to ensure our own strategy and approach was solidified and aligned with our plans to continue business operations. After navigating hundreds of unique crisis situations, we often find ourselves living in both a messaging and operations role when our clients face a crisis. Both approaches need to align while remaining flexible to react to the world around them.

Based on our experience, here are our recommendations for forming your own communications plan for COVID-19:


Redefining “Business as Usual”

The pandemic threat has forced companies to think of new ways to keep business moving without having employees in a central location or large groups. A first step in developing a coronavirus communications strategy is reviewing how this issue may, or may not, fit within the confines of an existing crisis communications strategy. If you have a plan in place that dictates how and when employee communications go out, or how office and facility operations change as the result of a larger issue, start with that foundation.

Next, it’s important to clearly establish what new operational changes will be put into effect as the threat evolves in real time. The proposed changes should align with CDC, state, county, and local communications and guidelines. Cities are already imposing bans on large group events, so expect more changes to be instituted over the next few days. In many cases, these government entities may dictate what steps your business can take, or make decisions—such as instituting school closures—that will accelerate required changes.


Leveraging Technology

As major news outlets such as The Washington Post, Business Insider, Fortune and dozens more have reported, companies are being encouraged to establish remote work teams and policies to account for recommended quarantine periods and mitigate the risk of transmission. This transition to remote work, however, is powered by a technology stack of communications tools. While technology doesn’t solve everything, it can serve as a Band-Aid fix to keeping communication lines open and moving as operations shift.

A few of the communications tools we utilize regularly as an agency:

  • Slack: Real-time employee messaging
  • Zoom: Video conference calling
  • DropBox: Cloud-based file sharing
  • Google Docs, Slides and Sheets: Collaborative file editing

Keep in mind, many of these technology services require an investment and/or on-boarding in order to ensure proper use. So, don’t wait to get started.


Effective Employee Communications

Communicating your plans to employees is a critical step in the process. While there are likely to be many communications related to COVID-19 over the next several weeks, the first message is critical. A few items we recommend including:

  • Distribute links and/or literature from the CDC containing a description of COVID-19 coronavirus symptoms.
  • Communicate that if an employee feels sick and displays symptoms, they should immediately contact their healthcare provider.
  • Reinforce existing PTO and sick leave policies. Encourage employees to be smart if they feel ill and make good decisions if possible exposure has occurred.
  • Include information on how employees will receive updates and from whom.
  • If your company has a position on remote work, reinforce policies and reminders on how to utilize existing technology (where to find passwords, how to set up video conference calls, etc.).
  • Reassure staff that you are actively monitoring the situation and that a point person has been assigned to collect and share information as warranted (we recommend assigning a team or individual to serve as a lead on communications and updates). 
  • If client and customer communications are on the horizon, let employees know how the organization plans to share its position and operational shifts externally.

It’s likely that employees will look at this situation through the lens of how this pandemic impacts them as an individual. For example, parents will want to know the company’s position if schools close and childcare needs to shift. It’s important to explore possible scenarios and begin formulating a plan with contingencies. 


Reassuring Clients and Customers

Once employees have received initial communications, the attention now turns to customers and clients. If you foresee interruptions of service, or wish to be proactive about communicating your operational changes during the pandemic, clear and concise language is key.

There is a strong chance you may have received an email communication from one or more companies in the past week. Starbucks, Delta, Southwest Airlines, PetSmart and many, many more have proactively sent communications to customers on how they have made shifts to deal with the impact of the pandemic. These communications are designed to project confidence and reassurance, while outlining key operational changes such as cleaning protocols, changes in refund policies and any shifts in the cadence of customer outreach.

If you regularly communicate with customers via e-newsletter or another method of outreach, you have an advantage in this situation. Use the channels you already leverage to develop and distribute your message. However, if you do not contact your customers en masse on a regular basis, the right message and language will be key during this important moment.


What’s Next?

While this situation is evolving at a rapid pace, Identity has been working closely with dozens of clients to help them prepare communications and navigate this unfamiliar territory. As a seasoned counselor with thousands of hours of crisis communications experience, we are ready to support your internal and external communications needs during this critical time.

If you are interested in engaging us, or need support in developing your coronavirus message, please do not hesitate to contact us today at 248-258-2333 or fill out the form below.


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