Given that that the World Health Organization has warned that Europe is the ‘epicentre’ of the coronavirus pandemic, having an effective communications strategy is key to how companies effectively deal with and manage the many problems the coronavirus presents. But what form should these communications take?
Employee engagement and safety has been cited as the top key comms action in dealing with the virus. There is no doubt that such a company move is essential as a starting point – both for effective internal communications and good business practice. But wider communication is also vitally important.
‘Strong communication will be critical in the coming weeks,’ says Kate Hartley, co-founder of crisis simulation business Polpeo. ‘We must all avoid scaremongering, but we must also do what’s right. It’s not just a question of ethics; it’s also business sense – if you don’t do the right thing, you risk large numbers of your workforce being out of action.’
‘It is important that communications is timely, clear, transparent and frequent,’ notes Jonathan Hemus, founder and director at crisis management consultancy Insignia. ‘Broadly, that is about communicating facts. Giving people clear information, reassurance – and related to employees, they may be worried about if they are going to be paid or have a job? So reassurance is really important. And action – having clear action that people need to take as a result of the communication.’
There is, says Hemus, a lesson to be learned from the government’s approach on transparent communications, after its Monday ‘lockdown’ announcement. ‘Having misguidedly allowed the announcement of new measures to filter out over the weekend via ‘government sources’, the subsequent decision to move to daily press conferences reflects the critical importance of frequent, transparent communication at a time of crisis.’
Casualty of honesty
There is nevertheless a concern that communications could contribute further to the crisis if too much information is revealed. ‘I think we are beyond worrying people. The issue now is to make sure you are transparent,’ contests Richard Stephenson, chief executive of digital communications tool company Yudu.
‘The casualty of honesty generally speaking makes things worse if you are dishonest. Companies need to communicate with their customers to give them a report on what actions they are taking and their policies to make sure their staff and their services are going to be protected.’
‘Ensure you have two-way communication channels in place,’ advises Rachel Miller founder of All Things IC communications consultancy in a guide to the crisis. ‘Crisis situations are not about broadcast. Your employees will want to know what is happening in real-time and need opportunities to ask questions.’
‘Businesses need to communicate to staff that they are alive to the situation, making plans and need their help,’ says Neil Bayley, corporate brand specialist and managing director at PR firm Good Relations. ‘They need to provide a regular flow of communication that connects the outside world with internal actions. This is often where they will lead with guidance or advice from authorities such as the government or industry associations.
‘It’s important they listen to employees through their engagement activity too, so they provide the information that's most valuable to them and address not just what they need to know, but also how they’re feeling.’
Risk of misinformation
Fake news, or misinformation, could be the enemy here. ‘Fear of the unknown is possibly the hardest thing to deal with in this situation,’ notes Hartley. ‘We just don’t know how serious this could be. Scaremongering and misinformation risk huge damage to business and to the economy. But the duty of businesses must be first and foremost to protect their employees. Without them, there is no business.’
In the same way, Michael Baker, co-founder and associate partner at communications agency Eterna Partners, says: ‘Communicating with clients and employees it’s important not to panic people unnecessarily. But also, there is a need to be honest and not unduly minimise the disruption to be expected.
‘Information and advice from government is changing rapidly. Constructive communications will be local to the area in which people work and help them to make decisions about how to prioritise what they do, how they do it and what they might need to stop doing in this new world.’
‘It is not necessary for businesses to reinvent the wheel,’ adds Hemus. He states there are some very good resources to exploit within any communication: ‘The World Health Organization has a great resource on its website, the BBC has a great deal of good information. Use what is already there and supplement it with anything that is organisation specific. But do make sure it is in line with credible best advice and practice reputable organisations.’
Effective communication during a crisis like the coronavirus can bolster the business in the eyes of employees. ‘In situations like this [pandemic], staff tend to ask two questions,’ adds Hemus. ‘One, is my leadership team competent to guide the organisation through the crisis? And two, do they really care about employees?
‘So communication with employees needs to be reassuring on both of those issues and giving them grounds that they are on top of this situation and doing all the right things. And implanting actions to show they care about employees.’ In addition, Hemus adds: ‘People are hungry for information. So it is almost impossible to communicate too much or too frequently.’
The wrong way
In a similar way, Stephenson adds: ‘There is a tendency among some companies to think there is enough information in the public domain, so they don’t need to communicate with employees. That is totally wrong. Companies have a duty of care to their employees. Employees also need to communicate with suppliers and customers to know what the company policy is.’
Hemus cites a tourist organisation that had a conflict between the communication team and the management team, where the latter wanted to restrict the amount of communication for fear of frightening people.
‘My view is that people know coronavirus is happening,’ says Hemus. ‘People know it is affecting travel, so by putting information on the website you are not creating more concern, you are reassuring people by demonstrating you are a responsible organisation who understands what is going on and are taking prudent steps to look after any customers.’
Say it simply
Offering advice on effective external communication approaches, crisis management specialist Donald Steel says: ‘I’ve seen terrifically well worded comms around the health precautions you should take for Covid-19 – Sir Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, and his colleagues, are model interviewees. But I see some that don’t make sense at all.
‘When people are frightened they want to be told what they should do. Say it simply, say it often and say it loudly. When you say it, think about tone. People who are frightened don’t do a good job – we learned that in WWII – we are not in the uncharted territory we claim. They respond to leadership and where possible, reassurance – when we can – and kindness.’
Employee communications, he warns though, are much harder. ‘Getting a message by email from the boss saying your job is at risk frankly sucks,’ says Steel. ‘Reading it in the paper before you are told sucks even more. Sometimes in major companies there’s no option, but we need to plan for these moments. Creating a sense that everyone in the company, from top to bottom, is in it together is critical. I’ve been impressed in hearing from some companies that managers are taking immediate and drastic pay cuts, and are able to tell staff this as they seek to explain the implications for their teams.’
Communication and action
In turn, good communications need to be backed up by effective action. ‘This means guaranteeing staff they will receive full sick pay for the entire period they are away from the business,’ says Hemus. ‘And that may be above and beyond what is said in their contract of employment. What that does is rather than just say employees are the most important asset it shows you care by putting your money where your mouth is.’
Miller recommends: ‘Communicating the crisis internally and externally needs to be handled by a nominated team. However, handling the press can be a complicated process, and if handled incorrectly can spell disaster for your company’s public image.
‘Therefore, it is crucial that you have fully trained, and fully prepared spokespeople who will talk with the press. They need to know how to assess the situation, respond adequately and efficiently and know who to contact directly when making a public statement.’
Hartley adds: ‘The most important thing is to put the right measures in place to ensure the safety of your people – employees, customers, suppliers and anyone else associated with your business. Then communicate what you’re doing, and advise them on how to abide by those measures. If you’re cancelling all business travel, for example, tell people why.’
Good leadership also plays an important role. ‘Leadership is fundamental,’ says Stephenson. ‘The chief executive and board need to be leading on this. The company needs to assert its policy on practical things such as travel and meetings. Non communication creates a vacuum.’ Miller concurs: ‘Leaders need to be visible and provide clarity and reassurance.’
Scope for speculation
The key is to minimise the scope for speculation, says Jamie Robertson, managing director of corporate reputation at PR firm Ketchum. ‘So be open in your communication and make it consistent and regular. Encourage people to be flexible with their time and empower your colleagues to make decisions about how to manage their working days.’
‘The businesses that come through crises best are the ones that use their values actively to guide them through, like a moral compass,’ notes Bayley. ‘This helps their staff trust in leadership and it shows through to customers, so they can come out stronger from the experience.’
‘And if ever there was a time to make your empathy abundantly clear, it’s now,’ adds Robertson. ‘The virus will pass, but the impact of the positive and supportive behaviours that you put in place will be much longer lasting.’
‘Your reaction to a crisis can either strengthen or weaken your company image with employees,’ adds Miller. ‘Improvements will inevitably emerge with any crisis plan – it is your responsibility to capture them and act on them next time round. Once the crisis is over, review what happened and seek feedback and ideas from employees. Transparency will engage your strongest team.’
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