COVID-19: Communicating Externally in the New “Normal”

By this point in the COVID-19 response, many businesses are settling into a new normal and evolving the ways they serve their customers, whether that’s additional safeguards that allow essential services to continue or work-from-home arrangements that reach customers in new ways. The question raised by many companies is how to communicate this continuity of service – and, in many cases, to publicly thank the employees who are making it possible – while also being sensitive to the current environment.

It is important to review each stakeholder group and determine what they need to hear from the company during this time, and if the current strategy, channels and tactics achieve these goals. The answers for every company will be different, but the following questions should help you get to the right decisions.

How are we caring for our own people during this time? How do they feel about our COVID-19 response?

Your employees can be your best ambassadors or your most vocal critics, so it is important to be realistic about their perceptions before you communicate externally. For example, employees who are being asked to report to worksites may feel that well-intended messages thanking them for their “essential service” or highlighting how the company continues to deliver for its customers ignore the inherent health risks they are being asked to take. Similarly, messages promoting charitable donations may be criticized if employees do not feel their own needs are being met, and business as usual promotions may be seen as tone-deaf. Done well, external communications can invoke a sense of pride among employees, but it is important to remember that many of these communications – most notably updates on company social channels – are likely to spark a two-way dialog. Be sure you are ready for the reaction by prioritizing your own people.

When it comes our community response, are we walking the talk of our prior commitments?

Prior to the pandemic, many companies were leaning into developing Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) strategies, and communicating more purpose-driven messages internally and externally. Now, stakeholders will expect companies to walk the talk by finding appropriate ways to care for their people and the communities in which they operate. Whether that is donating goods, repurposing facilities and teams for relief efforts, and/or making financial contributions, there is a clear expectation that the private sector should step up and play a role in response efforts. As a result, it is important for companies to communicate about how they are giving back in addition to any commercial messages, but they need to do so in a manner that does not appear like they are trying to profit from the crisis. Whenever possible, it always helps to use testimonials from third parties, such as elected officials or recipients of any charitable efforts.

What do our customers and supply chain network need to hear from us – and what is the best means of delivering that message?

For many companies, it is critical to make it clear to customers, distributors and the broader marketplace that the business is operating smoothly, or you have enacted business continuity plans. This could entail enabling the sales force with clear messages of reassurance or delivering these messages through social media or an advertising campaign, however this must be done carefully to ensure the company doesn’t appear like it is trying to profit from a crisis. The best advice is to maintain authenticity in your response, choose your moments carefully to avoid inundating your audience, lean on existing channels (rather than creating new) and know in advance how you will respond to any criticisms received.

What do people want to hear from us during this time?

Generally speaking, people are looking for information, resources and positive stories, but companies need to be mindful of not overwhelming stakeholders with too much content. The best way to understand what your stakeholders need and want to hear from you is to listen – whether that is taking time to read social media commentary with an open mind, engaging front-line teams to share customer reactions or conducting a brief employee pulse survey. Adding new feedback mechanisms is another way of showing stakeholders your company cares about them.

Even after addressing these questions and making decisions on communications strategies, companies must stay nimble and fluid as things change daily. Many companies have not been through a pandemic, let alone in the age of 24/7 communications and this is new ground. Missteps are bound to happen, but being people-first, authentic and transparent will guide companies through this time.

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