By: Rick French, CHAIRMAN & CEO
The rapidly spreading Coronavirus requires companies quickly prepare communications strategies for critical audiences. Like any crisis, poor communications and operational complacency could make the threat posed by COVID-19 an even greater challenge. How well your company prepares and responds will be judged by employees, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. Effectively communicating preparedness and making smart operational adjustments are critical for organizations to successfully navigate this or any crisis. FWV has compiled tips to assist our clients in proactively communicating as well as responding to requests for information:
I. COMMUNICATE EARLY AND OFTEN
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has made it clear that it is a question of when, and not if, local outbreaks of the coronavirus (COVID-19) will occur in the U.S. At the same time, the U.S. State Department has warned that travel restrictions could be put in place with little or no advance notice. In times of uncertainty, your employees will look for timely information on how your organization expects to be affected and how it will manage through the crisis. Coordinated, consistent and appropriately frequent communication will be appreciated. Your employees are the conduit to other concerned audiences such as customers, investors, supply chain partners, local communities and others.
II. SOUND THE ALARM, BUT DON’T BE AN ALARMIST
It is important to display an appropriate level of concern, coupled with implementation of preventative measures. With these communications, employees come first. You should act now. Make it clear that if employees and contractors are sick — especially if they exhibit respiratory illness symptoms, such as a cough, shortness of breath or fever — they should stay home and see their doctors. Empathy and humanity are top of mind for employees.
III. LEVERAGE CREDIBLE SOURCES
The World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control are continuously providing information on the status of the spread of the coronavirus as well as information on protecting yourself and identifying symptoms. In addition, the organizations provide Q&A and myth-dispelling information. Provide information to answer specific questions and refer to these sites where employees and others can educate themselves.
IV. REVISIT YOUR BUSINESS CONTINUITY PLAN…
As your IT, HR and Facilities Management teams are reviewing contingency plans, they will probably need help in communicating appropriately. It is important that the communications teams understand the processes that will be employed if the business needs to close due to sickness, if it cannot obtain materials from suppliers or other disruptions. Remind employees of proper hand hygiene, along with cough and sneeze etiquette. Place 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer units near workplace entrances, in conference and break rooms, and other high-traffic areas to serve as visual reminders about the need for protection. Sanitizing wipes and tissues should be readily available and quickly restocked. Encourage employees to wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds several times each day. And, if you operate an employee cafeteria, review hygiene and food safety procedures, including having cafeteria workers wear gloves and face masks.
V. …AND COMMUNICATE WITH CONSISTENCY
As companies aggressively encourage sick employees to stay home, they must also review work-from-home and sick-leave policies. Keep in mind that many employees will need to stay home not only if they’re sick, but to care for ill family members or cope with childcare issues if schools close. Employees afraid of losing pay or opportunities are more likely to risk coming to work even if they feel ill or have been exposed to COVID-19. The risks are compounded by recent changes many companies have made to their workspaces: fewer offices and more shared desks and collaboration areas. Your company must ensure employees and contractors are aware of your policy changes and that you will follow public health advisories.
Because experts think the coronavirus is transmitted through human contact, public health officials recommend reducing unnecessary face-to-face meetings. Many companies are restricting international travel, particularly to areas where the coronavirus is prevalent. Make sure anyone booking travel checks the CDC’s Travel Health Notices for up-to-date information.
Strong, healthy relationships are more likely to endure business disruptions and crises, but that requires communications that are honest, open and authentic. Take steps now to strengthen connections with employees, customers, suppliers, communities and thought leaders.
VI. DEVELOP A PANDEMIC SCENARIO FOR YOUR CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS PLAN
Review your crisis communications plan to be sure you have a scenario that applies to the coronavirus. Many crisis plans separate physical plant accessibility and reputation scenarios; today’s challenge can affect both. Double-check the alignment between crisis communication and business continuity plans. It is always best practice to stage a crisis simulation exercise on a regular basis. A tabletop exercise specifically devoted to the threats associated with the coronavirus should be planned sooner rather than later.
Your communications team should be structured to handle rapidly evolving situations — not just the coronavirus, but any crisis. Having plans to regularly update employees and other audiences is key to reducing uncertainty and combating the rumor mill. People are much more understanding when they see you’re aware, that you care and that you’re taking steps to minimize potential damage.
Hopefully, the COVID-19 outbreak does not become a full-blown pandemic. Taking appropriate operational and communications steps now will help your organization’s strength and stability. When lives and livelihoods are at stake, having a management team that’s considered well-prepared, thoughtful and resilient will enhance your corporate reputation long after the coronavirus is controlled.