With staff, businesses, consumers and clients anxious about the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), it’s a busy time for Internal and External Communications teams around the world.
Not only do we need to stay abreast of the latest developments and follow the various news outlets closely, we must also absorb a large amount of sometimes conflicting information from different governments and consider the impact of any new laws or temporary restrictions on the businesses and regions we support.
Apocalyptic contagion or just a sniffle?
If dealing with all that information and staying calm ourselves weren’t enough in itself, staff in our organisations are still trying to work out whether this is just going to be a “minor sniffle” or a “full blown apocalypse scenario” as we’ve seen in the movies; 28-days-later-style.
I suspect the reality will be somewhere in between the two extremes and hopefully much closer to the former than the latter for most people.
I’m being deliberately flippant here to highlight the contrasting attitudes to the virus that your audience may have, and it’s important to bear this in mind.
UPDATE 16 March: most people are starting to take this virus more seriously, although there are still differing attitudes to the approaches governments are taking, and it’s important to be aware of that.
Tips for internal communicators
Here are a few tips and ideas for your communications. These are tailored specifically to COVID-19, but you’ll find the general principles useful for most crisis communications:
1. Think about WHO your audience is and WHAT THEY ARE WORRIED about
- Staff will be worried about catching the virus, especially those who may have existing health complications themselves, or that have other people living with them at home who might be more susceptible to the virus than others.
- They will also be worried about childcare obligations if schools close and the need to care for elderly relatives especially if local shops or transport are disrupted.
- People will be worried about paying bills and mortgages and might be concerned about seeking medical attention, if it means they might have to stay at home without pay (“self-isolate”).
- It’s worth remembering too that your people are likely to be passionate about providing a service to end-consumers/clients so they will likely be anxious too about the impact on customers and the future of your business (and, of course, their job).
- If there has been a confirmed case (or even a suspected case) in an office, other staff will have concerns about whether they are now at risk.
2. Think about WHAT PEOPLE WILL WANT OR NEED TO KNOW
You can be prepared by having the answers to common questions:
- Will they catch the virus if they come to work? They want to know how you are improving general cleaning, bathroom sanitation, canteens, coffee-areas, meeting rooms and reception processes. Perhaps your current processes are so good, you don’t need to do anything differently, in which case, you’ll probably still need to reassure staff and explain why that’s the case.
- Will they pass on the virus if they come to work? Should they stay away if they have the virus or if someone they’ve had contact with has it.
- If they catch the virus will you still pay them? Remember this could be a worry that prevents them from seeking the medical attention they need.
- If they’ve returned from holiday in an affected area, will you still let them work, and if not, will you still pay them?
- Think too about contractors and freelancers. Do you want freelancers/contractors and third-party consultants to come into your building if they are ill just because they are worried about getting paid. Certainly, you might be under no obligation to pay them, but will you ask them to work remotely or decide to pay them anyway as a goodwill gesture? See what Morrison’s (supermarket) is doing.
- If staff are stranded abroad following a pre-planned holiday, will you expect them to make up the hours or take unpaid leave?
- What happens if staff want to cancel holidays? Do you want them to cancel holidays?
- Will you still expect staff to meet clients or travel on business? What alternatives are there (eg video conferencing etc)?
- What happens if clients are choosing not to self-isolate and they still want to meet in person after visiting a risk-area?
- If they are organising events for clients or staff, should they cancel them?
- What should managers do if a team member reports symptoms?
- What should colleagues do if they are worried another colleague is ill and in the office when they shouldn’t be?
- What happens if a staff member is worried about a pre-existing health condition or has a compromised immune system that could put them at greater risk of complications if they caught the virus?
- You’ll need a plan too, for when a staff member in an office or a visitor to an office is identified as having the virus. What will you tell the other staff and how will you address any concerns they may have?
UPDATE 16 March: with the UK government expecting to advise at the weekend that those in “at-risk”groups limit contact with others for 12 weeks or longer, can you start to think about:
- Will you have those staff work from home?
- Will you pay them to stay at home on sick-leave?
- How will you handle situations where your staff live with these at-risk people?
3. Try not to confuse people
- If the government in a particular country is NOT advising against doing something yet, do you really want to give conflicting information?
- If your organisation has decided it wants to give consistent advice globally that differs to what some local governments are saying, explain why you’re doing that and consider conflicts that arise from that decision. Will you nominate a local contact for each office/region?
UPDATE 16 March: Noting that extensive restrictions have been made by some governments that restrict “all-but-essential” contact with others.
- Does your advice still align to local emergency legal requirements?
4. Think about WHAT YOU AS A BUSINESS WANT OR NEED THEM TO KNOW
- Have you already got existing company policies you want to remind people about?
- Do you want staff to take unpaid leave?
- Do you want them to volunteer to take their holiday now?
- Do you want staff to work remotely?
- Would you like them to work in a different way or take increased steps to keep their own work areas cleaner or tidier than usual to facilitate cleaners at the end of the day?
- Do you want them to cancel events or client meetings?
- Is there a process for authorising the “loss” of deposits and monies already paid for things like events?
- If you cancel events will you still pay third-party suppliers as a goodwill gesture even if you are not contractually obliged to do so? See what Morrisons (supermarket) is doing.
5. Which communication channels are you going to use?
- How do people in your business prefer to receive information?
- Do you know which methods work best for each team/department/country? Which blend of channels will you use?
- Can you communicate in English only, or does it need local translation?
- Would translation on this occasion (even if you don’t normally) improve the reach of and compliance with the message?
6. Semantics – can you humanise the language?
Think about how the language we use can increase or reduce panic:
- Instead of “self-isolate“, let’s say “stay at home“.
- Instead of “disinfect“, say “increase cleaning efforts“.
- Instead of the “virus infecting you“, say you “catch the virus“
- Instead of “testing postive for“, say “have the virus“.
- Instead of “social distancing“, say what the alternatives are.
The simple use of the active voice, rather than the more clinical, passive style can help staff to feel they have more control over the situation (and the steps you are asking them to take).
Medical language sometimes makes things more scary than they need to be.
7. Reach out and be valuable
As an internal communicator, now is the time your business needs you, so it’s time to step up to the plate and show the value you can bring.
Here is a list of departments that might need your help but may not think to ask…. why not contact them and offer help?
- Business Continuity Team – it’s their job to keep the business running and they may initially feel confident that they have things in hand, but you know the audiences better and probably have access to more channels, so they will be glad of your help.
- IT – who will see increased pressure on remote working tools and may have sudden requests for VPN access as staff need to maintain connectivity from home.
- HR – who will want to direct employees to relevant policy to reduce enquiries and pressure on HR business partners.
- Premises/Estates/Facilities – can you help them reassure staff, explaining how toilets and catering areas are being cleaned more intensively. Will they provide extra things like paper towels or hand gels in bathrooms? Have you installed automatic taps that gush enough water? And the small stuff…. are they cleaning the door handles or the lift buttons (…germophobes have been anxious about that one for years!). Are you going to start providing disposable cups again, or can you reassure staff that mugs, glasses and cutlery in coffee areas are cleaned properly?
- Reception/Security Team – will there be different arrangements for visitors and meeting rooms?
- Finance – will income targets and cost budgets be relaxed or adjusted to cope with increased costs/impacts on the business?
- Risk – will you assess new client credit risk differently/are there new operational risks to the business?
- Sales/Customer Service – will travel be limited? Should client meetings take place? What happens if customers want to cancel services; will you waive contracts? Should client meetings be deferred until later in the year?
8. Do you need to plan to get extra help?
Governments are expecting this to last into and possibly through the summer, when they are hoping the warmer weather will cause the incidence of the virus to subside.
Some businesses are hiring dedicated freelance/contract communicators to help them out with COVID-19.
Can you be speaking to agencies or consultants now to get extra help either onsite or remotely?
There are plenty of freelancers, (like me) who are available for advice, for planning, or even to help you write and design communication materials on a more reactive basis. So please get in touch: I have a good network of people who can help, even if I’m unable to.
Likewise, any communications consultants who are available, please drop me a line and I’ll pair you up with people who ask me for help.
There are some very useful charts on the Information is Beautiful website.
- Have you got any tips or experience to share?
- What is your company doing?
- Did you find this helpful?
Please leave your comments below.