COVID-19: Communications Principles You Should Consider
The novel strain of coronavirus has fundamentally changed the way individuals and businesses alike operate. In rapidly evolving situations such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, FTI Consulting has been advising numerous organizations across the globe that are trying to navigate the challenges and opportunities presented by the virus. Effectively managing through the crisis requires a commitment to a number of fundamental communications principles as well as an honest assessment of an organization’s approach to a series of key questions. With so much on the line, communicators are more important than ever to help address stakeholder concerns and protect the reputation and trust of their business.
Core Principles of Response
- Establish a Covid-19 task force that collects, evaluates and acts on coronavirus- related information that could impact any areas of the business.
- Engage with employees through timely and relevant COVID-19 updates while reinforcing the steps an organization is taking to protect the health and safety of its employees.
- Prepare for media relations by developing media statements for multiple possible scenarios, and remind employees of your media policy.
- Proactively communicate with customers, prioritizing essential information they need to hear such as how the company is prioritizing its customers’ health, and updates or changes related to the fulfillment of orders.
How do I get my senior leaders and managers to speak in one, consistent voice?
Develop a tool kit for senior leaders and managers that includes key messages for how to engage with important audiences such as employees and the media. Include potential follow-up Q&As in the tool kit so that senior leaders and managers are prepared for all stakeholder questions. Messaging should always emphasize the health and safety of employees as the main priority. As the impact of COVID-19 changes daily, be prepared to update communications as needed.
Assume that you know every question that your senior leaders and managers are receiving. Have a clear alignment between senior leaders, managers, and employees to ensure everyone participates in the message development process and to increase buy-in for the communications material.
Our organization is providing helpful resources to key stakeholders. Should we communicate these initiatives more broadly, including to the media?
If your organization is providing helpful resources to customers or the public, it may make sense to communicate about them more broadly to demonstrate the proactive steps the company is taking in uneasy times. The media can be a helpful conduit for reaching a wider audience beyond the company’s owned channels.
Proactively seek good press for purely self-serving reasons. Companies do not want to be misunderstood as taking advantage of the COVID-19 situation.
What do you communicate to employees who cannot work from home and what’s the best way to do so?
Communicate the steps your company is taking to reduce the health risk to employees who are unable to work from home and explain why their roles are deemed critical. Follow guidelines from local authorities on shelter-in-place mandates, and major health organizations like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) about how to protect yourself and others. In a rapidly evolving situation such as this, there will likely be daily changes to communicate – and even when there are not – providing employees with regular updates will be necessary to maintain calm and focus. Setting up a reliable and accessible internal communication infrastructure as quickly as possible will enable an effective flow of information.
Communicate messages in a callous tone. Employees are likely experiencing heightened anxiety and uncertainty about their own health and their jobs.
What do I tell employees about their job security and merit increases/bonuses?
Communicate your organization’s plan for business continuity. Ensure that all communications about the company’s current economic conditions are transparent about what is known and what is unknown. Provide a set of key messages for senior leaders and managers in the event they receive individual employee questions about job security or merit increases.
Guarantee that employees will retain their jobs or receive their traditional merit bonuses. In uncertain economic times, it is unwise to make promises that may be broken.
How should I handle the timing of new thought leadership, marketing initiatives and paid social advertising? Should we hold new material until after the virus is contained?
Determine the priority level and goals of the initiative. Understand the current news cycle; if the goal of new thought leadership is to receive media coverage and amplify key findings that are unrelated to COVID-19 to a wide variety of key stakeholders, it will likely fall on deaf ears. In terms of new marketing materials and paid social advertising, messaging will need to be adjusted to ensure it recognizes the current state and doesn’t appear to be “tone deaf.” Prioritize content that demonstrates what an organization is doing during this time to continue to serve its customers.
Allocate resources to a new marketing initiatives if the resources are better used in the near term communicating about COVID-19 related information with a greater impact on stakeholders.
What other types of COVID-19 related crises should I be prepared for?
From a CEO contracting the virus to potential mass layoffs, there is little imagination needed to brainstorm the number of COVID-19 related crises that could impact a company. Update all crisis protocols to ensure that the appropriate stakeholders are prepared and armed with key messages and resources.
Assume that the traditional crisis plan, and the individuals responsible for executing a crisis plan, will suffice amid the COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic presents new challenges each and every day and more stakeholders, such as an organization’s health consultant or facilities management, may need to be pulled into crisis planning to add relevant expertise.
Quick Guide on Communicating in the Midst of COVID-19
Above all else, prioritize the health and safety of employees. This is undoubtedly a scary time in many people’s lives and as a company’s most precious resource, an organization’s communications should clearly demonstrate that it is prioritizing the health and safety of its employees above anything else.
Make sure information is factual and up to date. While a given for all communications professionals, it has never been more important for communications material to be accurate. Updates surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic change hourly and it is essential that all key stakeholders receive trust-worthy and timely information.
Do not overpromise. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely going to have long-term impacts on the business community and, as a result, employees around the world. Ensure that communications do not include promises that are unrealistic or may be broken as a result of the long-term effects of the pandemic.
Be prepared for any crisis. The pandemic seemingly causes a new crisis every day for organizations. Communications professionals should remain flexible and have updated crisis plans and established responsibilities for all key employees to effectively handle the situation.
The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, Inc., its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals