The Coronavirus (COVID-19) has moved into a state of emergency and that means your communications approach needs an important check-up right now.
At first you could get away with the positioning that you are monitoring the COVID-19 situation closely and taking precautions. But that won’t last long in a public health crisis, especially for organizations on the front lines. Are you in seniors housing or health care delivery? Tourism? Are you running a major conference or event with a large gathering of people?
Here are suggestions on what to look for and how to prepare:
Focus your communications internally and in close coordination with HR. Emphasize safety, explain policies and outline the actions your company is taking.
This is no time to think a one-and-done all-staff email will do the trick, especially for large organizations. Communicate through signs posted in common areas, social media, infographics and videos.
At our Baltimore office the management team has doubled soap products in the restrooms, posted tips on refrigerators and kitchen areas and placed wipes and sanitizing cleaners in the common areas. These visuals send a strong message.
Employees need to know if/how you are encouraging a change in routines such as using technology to avoid unnecessary human contact. Let people know if you encourage work-from-home to prevent contamination, what social-distancing technique you recommend and if you have any updated sick leave policies to share. Over-communicate this information and place a special emphasis on employees who you believe could use the extra guidance and direction.
Are you helping organizations financially or other ways? Now is an OK time to highlight your donations or how you are helping. Encourage other companies to do the same.
Consider the Source
As for sources on Coronavirus facts and recommendations, avoid the politics and rhetoric of Coronavirus and go straight to trusted institutions staffed with immunologists and doctors.
At the top of the list are the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the World Health Organization.
The tone of your communications, using the facts provided by trusted sources, should be “heightened awareness.” Not panic.
Consult Your Crisis Communications Plan
This is why we have crisis PR plans so follow the steps and protocols. Begin with the crisis communications basics: identification of team members; confirm who does what/when; update your template statements; and make sure you have current contact information including access to social media/passwords.
Next, look at the possible scenarios specific to your organization and plan accordingly. These could include leadership or employees diagnosed with COVID-19; travel policies and restrictions; impact on production or delivery of products; and questions about executive level decision-making associated with any of the scenarios.
Industry organizations are helping members with communications, so take advantage of their expertise.
For example, the U.S. Travel Association posted a holding statement, a set of talking points and a social media guide with sample posts and images specific to coronavirus. One of U.S. Travel’s messages: “The challenge in moments of public health concern is to react properly to the situation, but to not overreact.
If you delayed or canceled an event you will need to announce the decision quickly. Even more important: if you elected to proceed with an event your messaging is extremely important as the reasoning behind the decision will receive extra attention and scrutiny.
Prepare but Don’t Let it Take Over Your Narrative
One of your employees or a family member could become infected. Or neighboring companies in your building could be impacted. If word gets out and connects you in any way to the outbreak you should be prepared for questions – both internal and external – about policies you have in place and the steps you took. You need to have an answer.
Weave into your messaging how you prepared for and came out strong after SARS, Ebola, H1N1 and similar outbreaks in past years. This demonstrates your preparedness and confidence in weathering another outbreak.
At the same time, don’t allow COVID-19 to take over your narrative. Be proactive and ready to answer questions but remember you have broader organizational messages to deliver. Make sure this new topic is part of your ongoing spokesperson prep and is included in your media training exercises.
If you need assistance in messaging, crisis communications planning or getting the word out we are ready to help.
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