You’d have to be living under a stone to not be aware of the rapid global spread of the Coronavirus which causes Covid-19, as the disease is called. Just a fortnight ago, this was something serious ‘happening over there‘ – worthy of a news agenda, but perhaps not fully on the internal communications agenda.
Across all sorts of businesses, great and small, there is a wide variance in the degrees of preparedness for just such a crisis. Planning around Coronavirus is a challenge for even those with the very best business continuity plans. It’s a dynamic situation and it’s moving at pace.
Of course, the primary focus is on the health and wellbeing of people, with early phase strategies and policies aimed at containing and reducing the spread of the virus. But there’s a business impact too in terms of operational practice and, as time goes on, broader economic implications no doubt.
We have been talking to many of our simplynetwork members and clients to find out just how prepared they are and how they are going about communicating around the Coronavirus crisis. For some, it’s still early days with no direct impact thus far on their operations. For others, notably those with widespread global operations, they are already beyond the basic self-protection advice and focusing more on business continuity. Here are our observations so far:
All about employees
Something that makes this Coronavirus crisis a little different from other crisis communication situations is that it’s first and foremost all about the employees with the narrative being driven largely from inside the organisation. It’s not quite as simple as pushing out messages from the corporate centre – it’s not a PR job. But of course, there has to be a joined up approach to getting the messaging right for employees and IC need to be working hand in hand with HR, IT and a centralised risk task force.
Channel mix and comms preferences
With communication focused on employees, IC hold the cards here in terms of understanding all available channels, knowing what their various employee groups have access to and their communication preferences. If this isn’t the case in your organisation, this is a great opportunity to map this out – you’ll be better prepared for any future eventualities.
Agree which channel is to be your ‘single source of truth’. For many this will be the news section of the company intranet, but it may be an all staff email. It may be a living document on a shared drive with updates timed and dated or it may even be a briefing from your line manager. Whatever it is, your employees need to know where to go to find the latest information that is correct, up to date and relevant for your business’s response to Coronavirus.
Generally, you would communicate updates at a pace that suits the changing nature of the respective crisis. For Coronavirus at the moment (it may change in time), a daily update is essential as your starting point with additional critical information shared in real time. Communicating frequently, consistently and clearly is the number one rule. Even if you think there is nothing new to say, communicate to say just that! If you have promised a daily update, give a daily update. If you don’t others will start to make things up! There is no shortage of information in our hyper-connected world, so always refer back to official sources. This WHO site has some good general advice for the workplace as well as some myth-busting information.
Here in the UK, the most reliable source of factual information is the government website .
The function of your daily updates is to provide reassurance, ongoing guidance and next steps. This will help keep employees informed and calm. Should there be a need, time- sensitive, real-time updates can be broadcast across all available channels.
If your employees feel informed, reassured and understand their role in the situation, they will feel empowered to act appropriately. This is at the heart of good crisis communication.
One of our network members shared how just one small sentence regarding a sensible change to travel policy, in the middle of a wider communication, produced a flurry of questions from staff. Wherever possible anticipate all the questions you will get asked as a result of any change in policy or procedure that you communicate. Having a pre-prepared FAQ document to support any communication will save a heap of time and help to reassure staff. If you have a suitable intranet or digital workplace hub, perhaps consider building a ‘toolkit’ for employees with self-help guides, video clips (of handwashing maybe?) and FAQs so that employees feel empowered to take control of the situation for themselves. If some of these assets are shareable via their own social media channels too, then this could be a neat employee advocacy move as well.
Global vs Local
Planning and communicating in a global crisis adds further complication. If you haven’t already, get your governance sorted so you know where the message comes from and what can and cannot be tailored. If possible get HR, Risk and IC leads from local markets involved at the outset. A local response in a region directly affected by a major breakout of the virus will be different from our UK response this week. Be aware of cultural differences too – for example, in Asia homeworking is pretty unusual so an edict to work from home may need managing very differently than here in the UK.
Unsurprisingly, nearly everyone we spoke to had something to say about travel. Some organisations have banned all travel to affected regions; others are limiting to only ‘business critical’ excursions, others putting a stop to any internal company travel. The reasons are obvious – limit the movement of people and thus limit the potential spread of the disease – but can you also stop your employees travelling for pleasure? Whether you do or don’t is not the issue here. But you must have an answer to the question!
Be clear on all policies
As well as travel, be clear about how your policies are impacted by the current crisis. What does your sick leave look like? If you have zero hours contractors or front line workers for example, what will encourage them to act responsibly in the event they feel unwell or need to self-isolate for cautionary purposes? This is HR territory, but as we know it’s often the messenger who gets shot! Together, work on these issues and get the guidance out as early as possible.
Every day we are hearing about large scale events being cancelled – international book fairs, motor shows, sports fixtures and we don’t yet know about the Olympics. But what about business conferences, town halls, QBUs and the like? Even in the most digitally progressive organisations, large scale face to face events are still the jewels in the annual comms programme’s crown. Seen as being important for engagement, how easy is it to unravel the plans that have been made, in some instances, for months now? Several of our members have gone ahead and cancelled such events already. Others are scrutinising the insurance small print I’m sure. In one case, an important global leadership conference went ahead last week in the UK, obviously planned way before here in the UK we were overly concerned about the spread beyond China. In practice what happened was anyone who flew in from a recognised ‘at risk’ area was sent straight back on the next flight! It was less expensive than cancelling the entire event at late notice and still many others had the benefit of the face to face experience. As one comms lead said, “It’s a cost to the business and we will lose a massive opportunity for engagement, but people safety is more important.”
What is clear is that plenty of organisations are planning for digital alternatives, maximising the use of the technologies they have available.
In a year where the other big agenda item is the environment and climate change, perhaps this – along with the associated curtailment of business travel – is an opportunity to work better, work differently and change our habits for good.
Assuming your employees have roles that can be continued remotely, be clear about the protocols around remote working. Have IT looked at how this is practically resourced – enough laptops, VPN access if you’re not in the cloud etc . It often takes these sorts of situations to force us to look critically at how we get the job done, the way we work and who has access to certain systems and why.
Workforce wellbeing – emotional and mental health
There is so much practical stuff going on that it may be that the emotional and mental wellbeing of employees gets overlooked. For some, the Coronavirus outbreak may be genuinely upsetting and frightening. Perhaps they have family and friends in badly affected areas; perhaps they are feeling particularly vulnerable and worried. What do you have in place to make sure they are listened to? As well as occupational health avenues, make sure your Q&A repository covers off any issues that come to your attention. Actively promote courses of action and appropriate channels for individuals to seek support or report poor or inconsiderate behaviour. Anything we can do to keep people calm and reassured is time well spent.
We will be holding regular simply network conference calls to share experiences and ideas as the Coronavirus crisis develops. If you’d like to join the simply network and have the opportunity to seek peer-to-peer support in any communications challenges you may be facing with regards to the outbreak, please go here.
In case you missed it, Rachel Miller of AllthingsIC published an excellent list of questions. It’s well worth getting answers to these and publishing them in your Q&A section. I’m sure you will have more questions to add but it’s a great place to start:
- Should our people still be expected to travel for work?
- Are there any restrictions on personal travel?
- What should people do if they have travelled to an at-risk area recently?
- What should people do if they have visited a workplace that has subsequently been identified as having a case of Coronavirus?
- What should people do if they feel unwell at work?
- What are the arrangements for someone who decides to self-isolate?
- What if people within my team don’t want to come into the office but have not been told to self-isolate?
- What considerations should we have when arranging/attending industry events involving large numbers of people?
- Where can I go for further and current information?
- What’s happening in the background that I might not be aware of?
- What will happen to people’s holiday allowance if they need to cancel plans to travel?
- What happens if we have a confirmed case and the employee affected has been in the office?
- Do we have any different arrangements for people who may have a reduced immune system?
- What if I cannot attend work as my child’s school is closed?
- Is there a chance that the office will become temporarily inaccessible?