Six things Covid-19 has taught us about IC crisis communications


As businesses around the world rapidly adapt to the largest global crisis since World War II, never has the use and implementation of technology been pushed to the fore so quickly. And never before has the role of the internal communicator been so highly regarded in their organisations. 

The internal communicator’s role has been front and centre of this shift. Issues and challenges which were largely unplanned for have had to be devised, developed and implemented at a speed few have ever experienced.   

Chuck Gose, Internal Communications Expert and Senior Advisor at SocialChorus co-hosted this week’s simplypresents webinar, attended by more than 300 communicators, all eager to hear how others are rising to the challenge of keeping their workforces connected and engaged during these unprecedented times.   

“The world is temporarily closed,” said Chuck Gose, “and whether you are an individual, a company, a leader, a manager, a communicator or an employee, your life is different from what it was. We have all been ‘branded’ by this experience in some way – some will have negative scars, others will have positive memories to hold on to.” 

As individuals we may be cherishing the time with families or we may be frustrated with social distancing and experiencing Zoom fatigue. Our line managers are more critical than ever with even more pressure on them. Many of them will develop new skills and be brilliant. Some leaders have stepped up and others haven’t.  Some employees are home working, others are furloughed and some are continuing to go out to work every day, putting themselves in danger to keep our vital services running. The relationship between employer and employee is different now. At the end of all this, the questions that every employee will ask themselves will be, Do I want to go back to work? Do I want to stay with this employer? Did they do the right thing when it mattered?     

Chuck Gose again: “As communicators our dream has come true. We seem to have everything we’ve been wanting for the last decade! We are leading, we are advising, we have the ear of the C-suite. We are the champions of the hour. Let’s make sure we continue to lead, to advise and guide our companies.”         

But what can we learn from all of this? How can we ensure that what we are doing now and the platforms we’re rolling out are set-up to support our evolving businesses in the long term?  

At today’s webinar Chuck Gose was joined by Giulia Cherbavaz, Media Manager-Internal Communications at ConvaTec and Bridget Therriault, Strategic Communications & Corporate Affairs Leader and Stephanie Sobala, Internal Communications Manager both from Mainline Health who shared their experiences with us. It was humbling to hear these accounts from two businesses that are right on the frontline of the fight against Covid-19.   

So, what have we learnt? 

Lesson #1 We were not prepared… but how could we possibly have been prepared? 

Giulia Cherbavaz of ConvaTec explained: “Using hindsight and thinking about what we could have done better in preparation is just not helpful. We could never have known what was going to happen. Nor how fast it would develop. Our business had just gone through enormous change – we had a new CEO and had literally just completed a total business reorganisation in February which had impacted every single team in the business. We were rolling out our digital workplace and just finding our feet with a new way of working together when Coronavirus hit. It was unexpected. We realised that what matters are your leaders. Leaders make all the difference at times like this. In one day we had a Rapid Response Team set up to provide immediate support, immediate decision making and immediate action. Within a week we had our business resilience planned, reassuring and protecting our people first and foremost as they are vital for our business to continue.” 

Lesson #2 Out of necessity, anything is possible 

Giulia Cherbavaz continues: “There is nothing like a pandemic to defeat the last line of resistance to a new digital workplace! Internal Communications had had push back on some of their requests but now we are the shining stars of the moment, we are relied upon to deliver all the necessary updates via our employee app and even the CEO can do his own video updates from his kitchen and upload straight to the comms app. It’s actually much more real, far less corporate and it really feels as if he is talking to each one of us.”  

Lesson #3 People are Incredible 

“It’s been overwhelming. We hear incredible stories every day and the app is the primary tool for collecting and sharing these stories. We are encouraging colleagues to be involved in sharing stories of other colleagues, whether it is going the extra mile for a customer or a patient, or some astonishing volunteering activity, or just keeping the family life going while juggling home schooling and working from home. Everyone in our organisation is playing their part and it is incredible. It’s so important to recognise and appreciate people whether they are in our manufacturing plants or staying at home.”     

Lesson #4 Transparency itself is a message 

Mainline Health were involved right at the outset of the pandemic on the east coast in the US, being among the first to actually deal with Covid-19 patients. “It was clear from the get go that it was essential to communicate in real time even with unknowns,” said Bridget Therriault. “Usually IC are pushing our organisations to be transparent but that’s just after events. This is different but it’s how it has to be. Communicating in real time carries some risk, but it also demonstrates trust. We share good news and bad news, making sure that everyone in our organisation and our hospitals understands where we are with concerns such as lack of PPE, or our exposure to the virus. Over time, this commitment to being so forthright with the sometimes sensitive information we share each day has become almost the hallmark of our approach to all our comms – whether internal or external.”    

Stephanie Sobala continues: “We have had our comms app since last May and introduced a new intranet at the end of this January – timing could not have been better!  The app is integrated into the intranet which means that our daily updates can reach every single one of our employees – we couldn’t really have done that a year ago. Employee feedback suggests that this is the one thing that they really do read every day: it contains all the updates on the latest pandemic advice, the statistics for each setting and provides the reassurance that employees need that the leadership of the company is on top of the situation. It goes out at 7pm each evening so some people who don’t access email after hours can see it on the mobile app, or log on to the company intranet and see it in the newsfeed. We have also set up WebEx for virtual meet ups so that the written updates can be supplemented by weekly Town Halls – one for medical staff and one for non-medical. It’s an update from the CEO or Chief Medical Officers with most of the time – c 35-40 minutes -dedicated to answering questions from employees. These reiterate the key messages from the daily updates which help to back up the transparency message.”      

Lesson #5 In crisis, people crave connection 

Bridget Therriault again: “It was providential that we had totally updated our IC tech landscape in the last year. It has made it so much easier for us to keep connected during this time when many people are working from home. We are naturally social beings but in a crisis situation it is clear to us that people want more connection and more communication, and especially from people and sources that they trust. As well as the work- related updates, we encourage teams and communities to share more personal stories via the app too which really helps to keep a sense of connection while teams are working remotely.” 

Lesson #6 A crisis is a true test of your brand 

“As a company we have a strong set of values that are well understood across our business. A crisis situation like this really does put those values to the test. We have found that the very many stories we are able to share on our comms app about the amazing things that people are doing to get through this pandemic are uniting us all behind a common purpose. In our clinical settings our people are going above and beyond to offer genuine humanity to patients; these are profound stories: stories of compassion which are immensely powerful. The app allows us to share, to connect, to recognise and appreciate what is special about Mainline Health.”   

Back to the future 

During the webinar we polled the participants to see where the thinking is regarding any sort of return to normal. In terms of timing the slim majority (54%) felt that June/July was likely for some sort of return to the ‘office’ with 24% plumping for after the summer. This presumably takes in to account that different types of working environments may well have different timetables.  

A high proportion (78%) are already starting to consider what the comms plan needs to look like to support a return to some sort of normal working, although our expert panel were keen to stress that at the moment it is all about building resilience, ensuring that remote workers continue to be upskilled where necessary.  

67% of participants told us that they are actively improving their tech landscape for the future whether that be building a modern intranet (17%), creating new channels dedicated to change (29%)  or making channels more mobile enabled (21%).  

What is clear is that there is plenty we have learned, and will continue to learn, from this Covid-19 crisis.  There is no doubt that we will be better prepared for future challenges. 

It’s certainly obvious that internal communications is having its moment in the spotlight and for that, I think, we will look back and be grateful.          

To see the slides from the webinar, you can download them here.