As the business world continues to navigate the impact of COVID-19, communicators and business leaders have been working overtime to share and articulate their positions and perspectives on the novel coronavirus pandemic. Fast forward to mid-April 2020 and after several weeks of sheltering in place and teleworking, it’s clear the need for effective internal communications has never been greater.
As noted in a recent PR News article:
“During this unprecedented crisis, many employees are facing huge discrepancies in the way companies are communicating. Some may see detailed videos and daily updates going out to customers on social media or through email, while they wait to hear when their offices will close and begin remote work. Many may be concerned with the financial fate of the organization. Some may worry about job security, or if they should report to work should a family member test positive for coronavirus. Whatever the question may be, PR pros’ advice across the board is to over-communicate and put employees first. A well-informed employee can steer brand perception in a positive direction despite a shaky future.”
Identity has been counseling clients on how to rapidly deploy and evolve their internal communications in relation to the outbreak since early February. However, the pace at which we strategized and generated employee communications hit a fever pitch in early March and continues today. While no one has a crystal ball and can predict the future in this scenario, we wanted to share what we’ve learned so far with partners and clients as it relates to COVID-19 and internal communications. You can watch/listen to the entire webinar below:
A few things that we will be covering today include, one, we want to set the stage, do a quick recap on just where things stand. Specifically, as it relates to our roles as communicators and leaders and what we kind of need to know about this moment in time. Nothing feels normal, but we thought that as information is coming out and data is being collected, what are some interesting pieces of information that we have been collecting over the past week as it relates to the crisis.
We wanted to share a bit more about Identity’s point of view on internal communications, what we think is critical at this moment in time, and what we think is different about this particular crisis. Some of the realities that we’re dealing with, I mean, internal communications are very different than what we’re working with from a media standpoint, or even how we’re working with customers, and there are some interesting realities of just what we’re hearing and feeling and seeing as a result of the pandemic.
And then we want to get into some nuts and bolts: What is an actual framework for internal communications during the COVID crisis? What are we putting in place? What do we think is working, what do we think is lending itself well to having an elevated level of connectivity? And then we want to discuss some things that are on the more challenging side, how can businesses prepare for some of the most challenging conversations as it relates to exposure, potential employee death, or even business continuity. So we will be digging into a little bit of that toward the end.
We do have Q&A left open at the end of this session if you have questions and you’d like to add them, please enter them in the chat. I’ll be able to see them and answer them as we go, or save them towards the end of the discussion. And as always, we’ll make sure that we save some time and be able to unmute if you have an audio question or if you’re audio only. Keep that in mind as we’re going through the presentation.
So to get started, I wanted to set the stage in terms of what we’re seeing. We’re entering an interesting point of this crisis where data is starting to be collected and surveys are going out. And PricewaterhouseCoopers sent out a CFO survey that they usually send bi-weekly — this was March 9, which feels like a lifetime ago — but in that survey, the majority of CFO leaders said that if the pandemic were to stop that day, they believe it would take an additional three months for business to kind of return to normal. And first of all, if we can all think about what we were even doing on March 9, I can’t even wrap my head around how much the world has changed. But at the same time, 90 percent of CFO leaders saying that their businesses will turn back to normal in 90 days? That is still 90 days of hyper-connected communication required to ensure that employees understand what’s happening, what’s going on and what the return to normal even looks like. And that was before we had gone through so much change, both economically from changes in cities and states to what’s being handed down to the government. We can’t even imagine what the mindset would have been if we were making decisions several weeks ago based on what we know now.
The importance of communication, even with the highest level of optimism, we still need to be planning for ongoing communications internally to ensure employees understand what the next phase will look like as this crisis continues. On top of that, for those of you who are communicators and marketers on the call, we thought there were some interesting data points as well. March 10, the Institute of Public Relations surveyed 300 communicators and senior leaders about the crisis, and what they’re seeing, feeling and hearing. And there’s some very interesting stats that came out as a result of that conversation. One, 44 percent of companies or communicators felt like they did not have a specific plan for an infectious disease outbreak. That’s a very specific type of planning — and I know we’re lucky that we have some clients that were actually ready with that type of level of crisis communication in play and a plan to enact it — but almost the half of the respondents said that they didn’t have something specific for infectious disease or for a pandemic, which meant that a lot of people and businesses were trying to figure this out as they went along. More telling, 83 percent of the respondents said that they were moderately or extremely concerned about the potential impact of the virus on their companies, basically suggesting that it’s not going to go away anytime soon.
As you can imagine, respondents who said that they were not concerned were in the far, far minority. But there were a significant portion of the communicators who were saying this could have a lasting impact. And then asking for an update on what they stood, 10 percent did not have a crisis plan in place and 13 [percent] said they had not updated or would not change any things related to their crisis plan. So we are learning so much from the situation in real-time and we already have determined how we would change a number of the crisis plans that we have put in place as a direct result. But just knowing that depending where you’re at in the situation, depending on where you feel like your preparedness is from a crisis standpoint, there’s a wide variety of organizations and communications leaders that are kind of living in different seats. And many of them are seeing the lasting impact, and many of them are learning in real-time how to adjust their plans and some may not even have anything in place to begin with. So depending on where you fall, know that you’re not alone and you’re probably live somewhere on that specific spectrum based on the results that we’re hearing and what we are learning today. So we thought that was a great kind of setup for where things are from an internal communications standpoint in understanding how leaders and communicators are reacting to what’s happening.
I want to turn it over to Andrea to talk a little bit more about our position when it comes to internal communications. We have learned so much again through this whole situation we wanted to come up with some simple takeaways and some perspectives that we thought would be valuable.
Thanks Brandon. Good afternoon everyone, thank you for joining us. As Brandon said, our response to our webinar last week really just kind of speaks to this moment that we’re living in. And our goal today and our goal always as an agency is to share what we know, to provide tactical takeaways and to provide a filter for those of you that are on the front lines as internal communicators to kind of see how we are approaching this from a strategic side of things and hopefully we give you a different lens post today’s conversation to move forward.
So just to kind of build on the tone, I think first, and we alluded to this last week, in normal times I think when you look at the role of the internal communicator, you look at leadership and how they tend to approach communication with employees, there’s a wide spectrum there, right? There’s hyper-connected, super transparent leaders, and that’s just how they live from a DNA side of things and that’s, you know, in unusual times like these, or usual times. Then there are leaders that in normal times, they can be more opaque, they can share what they want to share, they can put forth information in a way that feels comfortable to them and communicators can adapt to that and kind of craft the message for the moment.
What we’re seeing with this pandemic is that just like operationally, culturally and all parts of our lives, companies and communicators are being asked to make real decisions in real-time, show who they really are — so essentially build programming while communicating — and really firing off what has proven to be just an onslaught of communications needs, particularly internally.
And so, as we look at this first and foremost again, there’s no case study on this, but if there’s one thing that we are counseling across the board, is that speed is most important. Some of the situations that we’re navigating, if we would say that the one critical factor that was either missed by leadership or a communicator, is that they were too slow to respond. We saw some of that again weeks ago when this started, and some of our clients that we were working with, primarily on the West Coast at the time, we were starting to understand and crystallize what messaging was required, what were the tactical implementations of how we were coming at COVID at the time, certainly with much less information than we all have today. And in those moments, I think the companies that are still trying to play the ultimate game of catch up were ones that still failed to understand the necessity of speed with regard to this unbelievable moment.
As we look at how companies are approaching this, the consistency both from a cadence, from a messaging, from an overall brand DNA side of things, that is the other critical part of a successful formula from our perspective. That will breed, which is generally a tenet of good internal communications, that will breed trust. Something to keep in mind as you’re looking at — either you’re building an internal comms program in real-time, or if you are again, just like us drafting, amending, servicing materials around the clock — keeping this formula in mind, I think, is a good filter of really what a successful strategy should look like.
I will say that again, this has been a real-time lesson for all of us as communicators: We love beautiful language, we love to look at messaging from all sides and to kind of always weigh the pros and cons of how a messaging strategy will land. I think another takeaway here is that messaging is really second here. Again, we really need to look at how are we responding and leading with speed in the forefront, and for every piece of content, tonality may not always be exactly on point. So that’s kind of a hard thing for us to wrap our head around, but in looking at how information is changing minute by minute — and I can’t tell you how many times over the past couple of weeks I have said things that I probably never thought I would say as a communicator within my career, and certainly when it comes to external communication which is not our focus today — but we’re living in this timeframe where we’re issuing, for example, media statements and amending them hours later. So that’s unbelievable. But we need to apply the same thought processes to internal comms, and really I would say kind of a final point on this slide is that really looking at how consistency of that communication — again, done is better than perfect in this instance — but we are seeing and we are counseling that the most successful companies who are navigating through this, we’re all living it in real-time, but still kind of looking at how do you lean into your values? That authenticity piece certainly can’t be abandoned. And what does it look like to really kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel? What do we want our employees to feel, to understand and to know about us, even when speed trumps all of how we approach things organizationally. And that’s our role as successful communicators.
Next, we want to talk a little bit about some of the realities again that we are taking stock of in real time. It has been such a fascinating moment. We’re on the receiving end of inbound inquiries, we’re driving strategy, we’re executing the materials. Like, what are the realities of an unbelievable moment that I think none of us thought that we would ever be living, and how is that being parlayed into communication across the board?
First, I think the employee organically generated side of this is really unlike anything that we’ve ever seen before. Employees are driving these discussions, and they have been for some time. Now, that can mean different things to different companies. And some companies, where they have more of these connected real-time chat style platforms, we’re seeing and we’re getting a lot of questions around, where does the company live in this real-time conversation that employees are generating? It’s happening a lot of times in email forwards, in personal platforms — you know, certainly social — and how your employees talk about the decisions operationally that the company has made. It’s a big component that is not only shaping their perception, but also how internal communication and those decisions and what that speed and transparency formula looks like, but how you are being perceived externally in real-time as well.
I think two weeks ago, give or take, some of the employee-generated conversations were kind of living in the space of: Why aren’t we working remote yet? What does that look like? And now it seems to be certainly as we’re living in it, that the sentiment has changed more to: How is my company supporting me through this? We’re going to talk a little bit about some of the really unique situations that we’ve been living with companies in the essential services space. But I think everyone across the board really needs to dig deep. We’re going to give you the framework of how to effectively work with leadership to kind of explore and answer those questions. But those are things that are being universally discussed, and need to be universally communicated in some form by internal communicators.
I think the other thing that is so fascinating about this is the impact of relationships within companies, and how that is shaping how employees are talking to each other, and more importantly, how they’re talking to people outside the organization. Something that we often talk about when it comes to just general communication best practices, I like to say to our team all the time: What is a dinner table topic of conversation? That often serves as our north star, primarily for external moments in time: How we cross campaign strategy, how we navigate media relations moments, like what’s the stuff that gets people talking. Now, internal communications and how organizations are responding has become that dinner table conversation.
So the question of how family members are going to feel about their spouse or their daughter or their son or whatever it may be, how they’re being treated in this moment? That matters. And we’re already starting to have those conversations, and we’re doing it in a sensitive way of course, but what’s on the horizon? How do these decisions, how do these moments in time, how does that impact when we get through this? Because we know we will. What does that look like, and the employee sentiment, how they’ve shared it, you know, employee retention, all of those things are going to be shaped by the personal relationship and how they shared the decisions and the types of communication, as well as the feel of that, what does that look like.
We are starting to see, which is interesting, companies do interesting strategies with employees, so whether that’s a stipend to support charitable causes, same thing is being done as far as how to support local businesses or take-out, so we’re starting to see leadership teams make those types of decisions. They are not external moments, or built to be external moments, but they often become that because of how employees talk about those decisions and how their company is reacting.
When we look at, you know, there’s lots of parallels and there has been from the beginning especially on the economic side of this equation, but the aftershock and the parallels of 2008, I think are interesting. I think the most important thing that we’re seeing is that, you know, number one, in this hyper-amplified economic conversation, generations within workplaces are responding differently. And they’re responding to their work differently, and how they talk about things internally and externally based on what they’ve lived, based on their life experience. It has emerged to us, just as a data point, that you look at millennials kind of coming into the workplace, getting hit by the 2008 downfall, they’ve lived something similar, as has Gen X certainly with 9/11 being part of that equation. One thing that we are looking at messaging and kind of the tonality around is that when you look at your younger workers, Gen Z, what they respond to — I mean, that has been the topic of de jour for years, of how do companies connect with this up-and-coming generation, what they care about, that is a conversation that we have all been following — but it is certainly coming in to play both as far as perception and perspective as far as these different generations and how they’re approaching their work.
You know the question as I would say the past five days is that we have been providing more filtered messaging lanes, so talking points for leadership teams, managers, HR teams to follow has really been reactive at this point, and that’s been this week! As far as, what does it mean for our employment? Do you know anything? Leadership teams and communicators are starting to take stock of those questions, and really, I think the desired practice that we’re prescribing there is, how do we stay in alignment because things are changing minute by minute and what does that look like to provide your leadership team with key messaging that they can follow to address those questions, knowing that different that generations coming at them a little bit differently based on their life experiences.
Then, I think that the other point to keep in mind here as we talk a little bit later today about the framework that we’re recommending, and again to give a tactical take-away and kind of think about next steps, what what the appropriate cadence is for your organization, I think it’s important to consider that the volume and fatigue of COVID-related communication is real. We saw — I think two weeks ago today — we started to see the memes emerge, more from a lighthearted side of things at that point, around ‘I didn’t know that every brand or retailer that I’ve ever communicated with is going to tell me their response to COVID.’ That was the sentiment, which feels like forever ago, but that was the sentiment then.
I think now just as humans, it’s the oversaturated feel that we’re all experiencing. I can’t tell you how many people have told me across all roles in different companies that they’re not keeping cable news on during the day, or they’re not engaging in their social feed at certain times, just to try to quell what is that real fatigue. So I think as communicators, looking at what is the right cadence, what is the right approach here, you know, again, it’s kind of a minefield. We’re telling you speed, transparency, you’ve got to get in front of it, you have to determine what that looks like, even at the expense of the bow-wrapped moment from a message internality side of things. But what does that look like, to really keep in mind that people are fatigued, and how do you use your values and brand DNA to your advantage, and to help you kind of toe that line that is right for your organization.
Couple of influencing factors that we’ve noticed as we dive in here just to give you a sense of what we wanted to provide: For us, internal communications we always have looked at, what’s the framework? In usual times, we’ve been able to take stock of organizations, we’ve been able to explore existing platforms, we’ve been able to recommend newer and emerging platforms and kind of how that ties to an overarching effective plan. Today, the nuanced nature of things is just different. This is a simple filter that again, we hope we just kind of give you a framework to make those decisions and walk away understanding how to at least linearly look at next steps in the coming weeks and months ahead.
First and foremost, I just want to talk through step one, set a leadership pulse. Establish cascading messaging, categorize messaging themes. We’re going to talk a little bit about some simplistic tranches that we think all companies should kind of evaluate and use as a guide of what they are talking about in the wake of COVID. Assigning specific messages to different employee groups is so, so important right now as you think about whether you’re a multi-location, hundred-thousand person organization, or you’re entrepreneurial in nature, what messages are right for what employees and how are you navigating that uncharted and often really noisy framework today. And then at a super tactical level just some takeaways as you develop and distribute content, what should that look like to kind of see this continuing through effectively.
Let’s roll through the leadership pulse. One thing that’s super front-end from an advice side of things, and we’re seeing this even in organizations that would classify themselves as hyper-connected — I always use, and you know with 30 people at Identity, that us as an example only goes so far, but we always use ourselves as an example where we can. Just to give you a sense of our leadership cadence, our leadership team is connected daily. I feel like our culture is one of open doors, popping in, bouncing things off of each other in real time. That is happening through, you know we’re a hyper-connected company day-in and day-out via Slack always, but especially during these times. We have set a different top of the week leadership pulse for our leadership team over the past handful of weeks Monday at noon. And the purpose of this is that to counsel your leaders, you need a task force that is dedicated to the communication around the pandemic. Period, end of story. Companies that are using this, looking at this I should say, as an add-on, we think it’s a miss. There’s so much changing, so much happening, you really need to focus on how that information is evolving in real time and walk away with very clear next steps of how information should be shared.
A takeaway from that leadership pulse needs to be focused on a couple of things. The frequency of updates that feel right for your organization, first and foremost. What does that look like? Being in tune to all of the factors that we set the tone on today, how your employees are communicating with each other, sentiments that you may be seeing on external channels, all of those things should go into that decision. As the next step here, really looking at what is your point of view and what are those key messages that need to be cascaded across your entire company. Those are the things that just need to be kind of have a critical eye, we want to break them out, clearly straightforward. But what does that look like as far as how you’re looking at company specific messaging, how are we looking at COVID messaging — which Brandon is going to talk about as far as the tranches that we have identified — and what does that look like as far as your current channels and how the company will obtain that information in a way going back to our formula for success with speed and transparency breeding that level of trust.
And one thing I think to add to that, which is very interesting and Andrea already used the example of Identity as a case study — you know we only can reflect on what we’re seeing, but at the top of the discussion we talked about the realities of kind of what’s happening and employees driving communication. We’re a very hyper connected company and I mean we’ve seen so far as people creating dedicated Slack channels specifically to talk about what’s happening with the pandemic. And why that comes into play around the cascading messages is that if you’re a hyper-connected company, you need to be ready to communicate potentially in areas where employees are already discussing things, or if there’s any sort of channel that’s in play that, or platform that’s in play, that needs to be part of that.
We feel like we’re seeing more of that either happening inside the four walls of a company, or we’re seeing it happening when employees take an internal communication and take it external. So we’re being very clear and very purposeful on where we are placing these cascading messages and how we are building them to essentially reflect how the organization is operating in real time. I’m sure there are other experiences that are taking place that are really similar, and we want to make sure we kind of move on that.
Now, one thing that we feel has been of great importance during this moment of uncertainty has been how do we determine how to bucket out messages as it relates to this pandemic? There are so many aspects that are being essentially influenced or they are becoming part of the hyper-connected communication that’s happening. We have started to bucket out what we think represents the message categories around internal communications and we see this reflected from other organizations — especially associations that are doing their best to help their membership navigate these moments in time and identify strategies that are applicable. We see there being very specific tranches that businesses can look at and categorize their messages when they’re looking to move things out to an internal audience.
Starting from the bottom up, we have wellness messages. So what is the company doing in order to promote smart, healthy decisions in terms of employees? That could be categorized in a number of different ways, whether it’s CDC information or cleanliness updates, and we have more specifics on that in a moment. But wellness being a part of this, I mean this is a pandemic, and it’s key that the company is relaying what they are doing, either it’s changes in the facilities or just what we are observing and forwarding, that employees are made aware of that information.
The second piece is operations. Many of us are feeling disrupted, we are working from home, we are working remotely, or we are in the process of potentially transitioning to that depending on what state or city you are currently living in. One of the biggest ways internal communication strategy can make an impact is ensuring that the right messages are reaching employees about how to deliver a great work product, even in a moment of disruption, so what will operation communication look like, but we now have to ensure that business as usual continues in terms of day-to-day customer client outreach or production, whatever that might be.
In the last piece to top of this pyramid is business continuity. So this probably represents the most critical moments, or the most critical response to what’s taking place right now. How do we ensure that we are delivering key updates on the health and progress of the company based on how we are reacting to the world that’s happening? These three areas kind of collect a lot of the ongoing communications that are taking place. And then they help build the framework of where you can place your messages moving forward. Some may be more populated than others, but we think if we’re able to address these three areas we can cover a lot of bases in terms of where we put messages and how we categorize our need to reach out.
Now, the next piece of that would be, who has ownership around the delivery of these messages? As you can imagine different categories probably have different types of responses and different delivery mechanisms. So one thing we wanted to provide some additional information on is, how are we assigning those messages to the right employee groups or leaders within the organization? So if it’s a business continuity message, that definitely comes from a C-level executive; preferably CEO or someone similar from a leadership standpoint that can deliver probably the most critical company updates to the broader organization. It could be business impact updates, it could be closure of offices, significant staffing changes, and unfortunately, we are living in a reality where every week we are seeing decisions being made, especially by companies that have been directly impacted by this pandemic, where they are announcing furloughs, they are discussing move to only essential staff, and that is usually coming from a C-suite level person who is delivering it with very specific information and emotion and direction on what needs to be done to ensure the company survives.
At the same time, we are seeing the opposite effect of how companies are rallying around business impact and sharing what they are able to do and provide, and pivot on when sort of the time arrives and they’re having a call to arms. We’ve noticed that with General Motors and other companies that are pivoting to help support the production of materials, such as ventilators and masks and the like. Now operationally, we have C-level or senior leadership or management helping to deliver messages about how business can continue to deliver during this very critical moment.
Now, there are a couple things that again might be more in hindsight, but if you have not sort of transitioned to a maybe a remote staff or you’re in the process of planning, a few things you want to keep in mind as part of this process so this could be best practices for working remote, it could be technology guides for services like Zoom or social media, or accessing internet portals in real-time when you are not on network. And these can also be ongoing kinds of updates like things that we’re hearing: Hey, there’s this specific update you can now put in place with your chat service to ensure that you’re maximizing it to the best of your ability, here’s something that we’re hearing in terms of technology, or maybe we’ve decide in real-time to move to something else, which we have seen companies moving from, say Zoom to Microsoft Teams or vice versa, in order to leverage the best tools available.
And the last piece around operations could be something like a client FAQ, so questions as it relates to any inbound inquiries, what clients may need to know about changes in operation — again because there are so many opportunities for individuals to be the ones leading conversations it’s good to supply them internally with talk points if required. That may fall more on the external communication side on the end-use, but giving them something that’s communicated internally is key.
The last piece is wellness as we mentioned in the previous slide, so how can HR play a role in supporting information around good decision making and what is happening from a response to an actual infectious disease outbreak. So what does the company have in place in terms of wellness and support from a benefit standpoint, or what are they hearing from their benefits provider that individual employees need to know. Are there office and cleaning updates? So we talked about anything from extra visits from a janitorial staff to what they’re putting in place for distancing and other types of pandemic response recommendations. And then more generic employee FAQ information as we mentioned: information is flowing fast and furious, and many of those questions are related to how we are keeping staff healthy. So maintaining an FAQ, whether that’s an employee portal or another destination, I feel is a key area where we are able to provide wellness specific information through an HR leader or someone similar inside the organization.
And then the last piece of this continuum is, what does it look like to actually get into the tactical execution of content. I think, again, this is where there are so many different sides of this prism and how do communicators navigate that. So on one hand we’re kind of leading with this truth from speed, how do you get it out, what does that look like, how do you recommend that to leadership and what are the tactical steps to move things through the system. I think depending upon the different types of content, as well as the different distribution channels, that’s where you can kind of be the judge of what is the tonality, what merits kind of that extra feel, that extra sweep of brand key messaging, and how do you make those decisions appropriately and effectively as you can in real time.
So as you look at things like an internet distribution of content or an FAQ, those are pieces that we can look at in real-time and kind of come back to, tweak that. I mean this morning alone, we must have told three different groups that we wanted to do a final sweep for the morning of an FAQ that was drafted on Wednesday, just because so much has changed. What does that look like from a tonality, direction side of things? And certainly that is based on the distribution channel. As you look at those channels, I think it’s important to consider — and we’re seeing it too, just like we’re starting to see data points come out of this in real time — you know, how certain decisions on the types of channels, there have been some really beautifully done, heartfelt, approached in an emotional way, videos from CEOs of major companies, kind of sharing their position on what this means for them. To the same point, you know that doesn’t always mean that video is the right channel. Going back to authenticity and what is in usual times a desired direction for your organization, that doesn’t mean that every CEO is built for that type of tone, built for that type of channel, you have to evaluate things in real time that you think are the right fit well weighing the pros and cons.
And then one last point here, and Brandon and I were talking about this all week, as far as how do we look at the types of feedback that certain channels, certain pieces of content are getting, I think that’s still important for us to remember, even in this swift-moving time that you can monitor, relay feedback during your leadership pulse, and make those decisions aligned with what you know that may require some tweaking as we’re certainly far from what is just going to be an ongoing communications requirement. Different parts of the communication realm at scale as we continue to live this thing. So that is kind of the final piece of the continuum that we set forth today.
We are running a bit short on time, so I do want to move into kind of the next step of our agenda, which is how to navigate these challenging conversations. That has been, I think for us, the biggest part of our counsel equation in real time, of how we are looking at things that, again, we never thought we would be living and how communications teams respond to these moments that just have no playbook.
A few that we’ve identified here, and we talked a little bit about this organically today, but the ‘changes in operations’ conversation is just one that is probably the most fastest moving and what that looks like. I think certain pieces of content that we have helped deliver — Brandon touched on this, especially with the new world of entire companies working remotely — it’s one thing to give direction of how to approach that as far as the tools in the toolbox, what does that look like? But it’s another to really look at things like nuanced expectations, that how do team members know in this new world where their work and home is in the same space of what is really expected of them in that environment?
So those are pieces of content that again, when you look at the totality of that, it’s an operational directive most likely coming from a management or HR leader. And so looking at how do we navigate that, how do you tell people what they — in some cases you may assume that they know but I think in this environment it’s probably safe to assume that they don’t — and look at that through this operational tranche of, what is the right language for a management team, how are we approaching this? Again, we have so many conversations around just the overwhelming mental states of employees, how does that tie into the tonality of different pieces of content, and what is just really a pivot to HR-specific language so that there isn’t confusion, especially when we’re in an environment that as folks are reading these pieces of communication from the company, there’s lots of independent kind of room for interpretation, so something to consider there.
When it comes to layoffs and furlough, I think first, we are looking at everything across the board to make that information, first and foremost, as clear as possible for the companies that we serve. The look at easily accessible access to resources, what this means for them and what you know at this point. I think one of the rules that we as communicators are rewriting through this crisis is that you tend to look at things of, what we know? Dates, time, specifics. There’s so many unknowns, as we all are well aware of, and how do you communicate with a sense of comfort when you don’t know. Those are things I think can be part of something to help employees understand that they have access to resources, that there’s live support in many cases as part of that equation, and the steps that the company has taken to, first and foremost, focus on sustainability of the company, but also in some cases we are navigating messaging points around what a CEO is doing to support the company. In many cases, not taking any pay, what does that look like, what is the messaging if there’s kind of a shared load approach to this and I think it’s important too, as you approach these task conversations and pieces of content, to really think about the tactics, and what are the things that we may not be considering. I mean I can tell you that on several occasions, we have been drafting out-of-office email replies for employees that have been furloughed. That is kind of a piece of a communicator’s puzzle that, what does that sound like when your customers are potentially communicating with people who have been put on a furlough program, what do you want to say, what is the chain of response that is desired? And how do we ensure that that is aligned with overall company messaging both externally and certainly internally as well.
When it comes to rumors of employee exposure, typically what we have seen on this, and we have navigated several, unfortunately, several occasions of this as we’ve lived this thing through, both talking points or questions that come one-to-one to HR. Very critical part of that, how are we talking about that, what does that look like, how are your HR managers prepared to speak with the company voice of what that exposure looks like and what we know. For this piece, we are looking at: How do you lean into the facts, how do you communicate timelines, how do you communicate safety and what are the things that we need to ensure that our employees understand, again, going back to the wellness part of this equation that we are here to protect them?
Something that has come up this week, especially for us in Michigan, has been the role of essential services. We have been working with brands who are deemed essential service, but are navigating really challenging internal questions, both to their management staff and beyond, about why are they essential and what we are doing to protect them? That is part of an overarching equation too, of how, again going back to the top of our presentation, how are those employees talking about what the company is doing for them both within their immediate networks and they’re more broad-reaching social networks as well.
And then employee deaths. So, we’re getting some questions about this. The question of transparency when it comes to health matters first is certainly a very challenging one. This is a worst case scenario, and we did see some really sad moments this week, speaking from here in Southeast Michigan, where companies were having to publicly share that an employee had died from COVID. And what does that look like internally? That is a challenging task as far as first, what is the overall statement look like to employees, how are we talking about this individual, what does it look like from a personal anecdote side of content and how is the organization connecting with and speaking to from the company voice? And it’s almost so hard to talk about, but to these individuals as an organization. So those are things and again, worst case scenario, but I think you have to navigate with the information that you have, I think you have to again look at it from a company tone, voice, leadership side of things and just as a human.
That, when we’re facing this, I feel like that’s one of the rules that is being rewritten in real time for us as communicators, is that we are all living this as mother’s, father’s, people, spouses, and how do we want our employees to feel as far as how we would feel as we face this. Certainly, more of a thought for preparedness, but something that should be considered as part of the conversation, if your organization thus far has been impacted, then you’re probably having a different conversation, but definitely something — at least set that leadership pulse for conversation within your task force.
And then return to new normal. So, this is part of a conversation that again we are really delicately looking at, both as we look to create strategy for the companies that we serve as far as what does it look like based on scenarios, based on timelines, based on what business as usual will look and feel like post-crisis, whatever that means. But I think there are certain things that are starting to need to be considered as far as how are companies going to respond to what the new normal means for them? Certainly, again, going back to the pyramid and the messaging tranches that we provided, not only is this a wellness and safety issue but it’s a health, wellbeing and human issue, and this is where it’s going to intersect with a business decision-making issue and how that is communicated.
I think the question of timelines, I think the question of operational next steps of coming out of the crisis, and I think it’s just important to really hold kind of of a self-awareness lens up to your organization of ‘who do we want to be for our employees when it comes to those factors, when this is all said and done,’ and secondly, ‘what is the impact of that sentiment when we’re well beyond this moment in time.’ We all know that leadership comments, decisions, management directions, tone of conversation — I mean those are things that can really start to gain negative traction in usual times. But as we look to the new normal, I think the sentiment that organizations, successful organizations, will cultivate of how they navigate this with their employees, both from a transparency side of things in a formula that we covered today, but the decisions that are going to be facing organizations as we make our way through, that’s the looming kind of next step or potential next lift of crisis, if you will, depending upon how that is navigated.
Lots of things to consider as far as the past conversations, how to address the parts of this that are super challenging as a communicator. And again I just want to provide you with a sense of how we are looking at that you know certainly weighing what the outcomes should be, what is the organizational DNA that we need to always consider and what are the facts that can really go into both the types of content, the way the content is delivered and from who, to ensure a successful strategy moving forward.
Great, well with a few minutes left of our time we want to make sure we want to make sure we have the opportunity to address a few questions. We have received a few via chat and we will also be taking or giving the ability to unmute themselves if they have a specific question.
But as we move to Q&A, one of the first questions we received is:
“Is internal communications an HR or marketing function in this particular moment in time?”
We thought about that as we’ve looked at how we built our messaging tranches and that there’s kind of ownership for each potential group. Now, with the impact of this level of crisis it’s likely that marketing is going to play a role in developing the content and providing some support and direction, but HR will likely help in part of the delivery or working with leadership in order to distribute that content. Depending on your organization, we’ve seen them structured in many different ways, where internal communication and the standard function lives actually in human resources and not in marketing. We’ve also seen it where marketing runs everything. It can really shape a few different ways. I think what’s critical here is who is delivering the message and not necessarily who’s responsible for developing it or assigning it in real time, because that’s what’s going to be a key here as we look at our tranches around wellness operations and business continuity. Andrea, if you want to add anything to that.
Yeah, I do want to add just one quick point. I think one thing to consider in this crisis is that it’s just very different. Let me start here, legal has often been a part of that equation for certain companies and I think this crisis is presenting a different lens and a different role of where legal lives. So I think number one, the organizations that we are working with where legal absolutely is a part of that equation, I think more so than ever before we are making recommendations around, it’s one thing to have a legal sign off on the information and what that needs to be, it’s another thing in this moment in time of how that information is presented and that’s where the judgement coming from marketing teams as far as the tonality, the feel all of that, I think is absolutely critically important more so than any other crises scenario that we’ve lived.
I think that’s spot-on Brandon, but I think it’s something to consider again as you look at the leadership pulse communicate to senior leadership that, yes, absolutely legal needs to be involved, but as just the threshold of all the things that we talked about today, mental state of employees, uncertainty, no one has a crystal ball and the feel that communications needs to provide as part of the internal sphere absolutely, but just be mindful that a piece of legal content really look at the tone and the approach that you’re taking. Because I think in a worst-case scenario those can be the pieces that either, A. become a negative sentiment driver externally or start that boil of negative employee sentiment internally, but then you’re going to find yourself playing a really unfortunate game of catch up because you didn’t look at all sides of that equation. So just a point to that question Brandon.
Great. We did receive a few more questions, but I am allowing anyone in the chat if they want to unmute themselves if they feel more comfortable asking a question they can. But everyone has the ability to unmute and we’ll give it a second if there is a question so feel free to do so. While we are unmuting we received another question: “What about employees who may not have access to regular communications channels?”
Maybe hourly employees or individuals at retail locations or possibly quick serve restaurants that even especially those might be open due to essential communications. That’s a real-time question where we’re seeing some different responses. They have been asked about ‘do we deploy a SMS, you know, text message technology because these team members do not have email as a way to reach them,’ or is it really just a laddering down to managers to be able to relay that? The answer is really kind of both in some capacity, but at being able to ensure that group who does not have access to normal communications receives these updates is very critical. I don’t know if you want to add anything to that Andrea.
Yeah, actually, I just had that conversation this morning and we were looking at supply chains-related opportunities for like, line-level retail employees. So I think a couple things, I think SMS being explored today more than ever is an effective tool. I think thinking a little bit differently using this conversation this morning as far as what are available physical assets that can be deployed at a retail level. So things that we have done in other scenarios, things that we are looking at certainly here are tactical roll outs of things like posters, things that can be absorbed from a communication side of things next to like a time punch clock and then also in those instances that is where a very simplistic filter of messaging for either shift managers or GM’s of retail locations. You can kind of decide where that needs to live based on ability to deliver and then just kind of several factors to that end, but I would say that the talking point at that level some level of engagement of shift change, that is how you can kind of best control if possible that line of messaging in addition to either explain supply chain opportunities or physical assets being deployed and visible within locations,
Great. We received another question: “Any advice in terms of the most efficient channels? Still email?”
That’s a great question. What we’re finding is that there’s kind of a cascading use case depending on where the message might fall. If it is a business continuity issue, top level communication about impact as related to the pandemic, there’s few different channels at play. Email is purposeful, but probably a last resort. Audio or video town hall has become very popular with the distributed workforce as a way to communicate emotion. It’s a way to show leadership in real-time if the technology infrastructure exists. Moving to the more operational or wellness-related communications, emails, internet portals, chat services those all can be used for, I think some of those more required but less, and I use the word less very sparingly, like updates as it relates to what the business is currently experiencing. So if you are treating this as a separate focus area, look for ways to ensure that the information is being received as effectively as possible. And if it’s email specifically, which for many businesses that is probably the most efficient means, if there’s an opportunity to measure that, put that in play. We have heard from clients that have been doing a concerted push to relay the information about COVID-19 that they’re kind of getting so, so responses with emails. Some are reading and observing everything, others feel like they’ve been pushing things out and they haven’t necessarily made the immediate impact, just because the nature of being a distributed or remote workforce at the moment. So you know if it’s a critical update we’re always looking for town halls and another way to share the information. Where are employees having to go in order to access their tools? That’s another area where information can be delivered, and then email is a tool in the toolbox, but we want to make it clear that there’s a way to differentiate it and stand out among other communications. Andrea do you have anything to add to that?
Yeah, no, I think that covers it. Again, I think that’s why the point at the end of the framework is so important is that and that’s really where that stems from, Brandon, is that even when things are just firing at the nature just from a speed side, I think kind of critically looking at how employees are responding to certain tools, a little bit of experimentation if there’s a space for that absolutely. And again, I think this is where going back to the top of the conversation, this is where the importance of in that leadership pulse transparency around how leaders can deliver information again arming them with talk points today more than ever is a really, really effective means just to try to look at how does this message cascade coming from them and looking at that town hall vehicle as a way to do that.
All right, I know we’re a bit over time, but Andrea and I will definitely spend a few moments and make ourselves accessible for more questions, but I want to thank everyone who has joined our webinar today on internal communications. We will make this available for viewing and downloading after the session and we’ll distribute via email. But, thank you again for attending. We’re going to hang out for a few more minutes to answer some of these questions so feel free to hang on while we finish these up. Or if you’d like to type into chat if you have one, feel free to do so, but we want to thank everyone for attending and hope you enjoy the rest of your afternoon and weekend. Good luck on navigating this scenario, know that we are in this together and we’re here to provide advice and counsel where needed.
Absolutely, thank you for joining us.
So just a few questions for those that are hanging out and hanging on, we did receive another one about this concern around internal communications being publicly displayed, as in what we say internally having a chance of making its way out into the public world, and absolutely that is a real concern. We are seeing it more than ever here in Southeast Michigan there are a number of media stories of medical and hospital-related organizations having their short of POBs and their potential responses to the crisis being displayed on social media which is an issue. So, the chances of that type of information making its way to the public are high. Especially, in a moment of crisis and high tension and knowing that information that employees might have a certain perception about, it could easily be leaked and shared. So, consider what type of response is required, again going into the more external and PR side. The reality is that there is a high probability it could work its way out, as the world is just being completely dominated by this conversation.
Yeah, I think I would say this, Brandon, just real quick to add on that, I think: Assume it will get out. It’s probably just a good thought as you approach things. I think as you said, Brandon, the healthcare systems in particular are really facing a challenge, with you know, the need to communicate challenging, sensitive information at scale and how that is being shared externally is a really hard thing for them to navigate because on one hand, they need to say these things they need to reach thousands and thousands and thousands of people and share their perspective on how things are happening and what that looks like across the organization. But I think every organization again going back to kind of the unique factors of this is that it is just ignited in all of us not only an appetite for information.
But just, it’s so unbelievable that I don’t know about you, but it’s all you can think about, it’s all you can talk about with anyone that you’re connected with, and so you know, I think knowing that those pieces of content are going to be somehow visible externally is just a good way for communicators to really just look at, again, to 360 of how would this is impacting our customers, how would they feel if they knew we communicated to our people this way and there really is no kind of effective hard-and-fast rule to stop it. I think there have been instances in the past where certainly we have faced into different pieces of content messaging around that this is confidential and here’s why, but in usual times there’s been a little bit of a clearer path for us to stay that organizationally. Where I think in the wake of COVID, you know again people are, first and foremost, in a different emotional and mental state so I think we have to really take that into consideration I think all the factors that we talked through at the top of the presentation kind of go into assuming that internal content will be somehow external facing and really just kind of plan for that. And I think in specific instances there are ways that sensitive messaging can be developed and what that looks like and others I think depending upon what that looks like it comes back to having a really solid sense of the tonality of content and how it will be perceived as just using our own judgment as a human on this more so than ever.
Great. Thank you for that additional input Andrea. So with that we’re going to go ahead and wrap today’s call and webinar thank you again for joining and enjoy the rest of your Friday.