Best Practices for Communicating to Stakeholders During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Blake Androff

The current COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak is creating tremendous unease, uncertainty and anxiety among organizations and employees across the country.

The following list is a series of best practices for communicating during a crisis or a public health incident:

Audiences – think about the various audiences you will need to reach: employees, internal stakeholders, external stakeholders, and customers.

Internal communications – while many organizations focus their attention on external communications, your internal workforce is the most important audience you have so it’s critical that you provide information to your team that is transparent and accurate but is also delivered in a timely and consistent fashion.

Steps to consider:

• Send an all-hands employee communication and set expectations for when they will hear from you moving forward.

• Acknowledge the anxiety your team is likely feeling and commit to providing transparent, accurate and consistent communications.

• Provide links to government resources (coronavirus.gov, CDC, etc.) that have real-time updates.

Consistency – each organization has different protocols for internal communication but it’s critical that you set expectations for how regularly your employees will receive updates.  If you have committed to daily updates, send them around the same time each day, from the same person, using the same format and send the updates even when significant developments haven’t transpired.  Even if the update doesn’t seem substantive, the more often you communicate the more trust you will earn with your employees.

You’ll create unnecessary anxiety by providing sporadic updates from different people sharing different information at different times of the day.  Try to streamline the sharing of information so it’s predictable and easy to access.

Steps to consider

• Identify a main point of contact internally who will be the primary messenger and all communications should come from this person.

• Commit to a common template with agreed upon sections that will be used each time.

• Decide on a specific time of the day when your communications will be sent.

Accuracy – your communications should include accurate information that reflects the constantly evolving and unfolding situation.  If you reference stats / figures, make sure they are updated with the latest information before each communication is sent.

Format – there are a variety of different ways to share information – newsletter, email, conference call, intranet, etc.  Keep in mind that some of your employees may not be able to access the intranet when out in the field or on assignment outside of the office.  No matter what format you choose, make sure it’s convenient for all audiences to access using regularly available platforms.

Tone – the tone of your communications should be consistent, and they should be aligned with what your employees have come to expect from the messenger.  Not only should the communications match the style of the messenger, but they should also be consistent with each update.  Instead of editorializing or speculating what may happen next, only stick to the facts and the best available science.

Transparency – even when inconvenient or difficult, it’s important to be transparent in your communications to ensure you maintain the trust and confidence of your employees and stakeholders.

Reporting – establish a mechanism by which your different departments gather and report up information that will feed into your regular communications and inform your executive decisions.

External communications – in addition to keeping your employees informed, it’s equally important to be proactive with your external stakeholders and customers.  Discuss steps you are taking to minimize the spread of the virus while maintaining your ability to service your clients.  You want to instill confidence in your customer and external stakeholders that your strong continuity of operations (COOP) plan means you will be able to continue business as usual.  If you are making a major policy change that will impact your customers, be proactive in sharing the information directly with the customers before they read about it in the news.

Media Relations

• If an employee contracts the virus, your organization should be prepared to respond to all media inquiries.

• Prior to this potential reality, you should have:

• Immediate holding statement with known relevant facts while other information is gathered.

• Identify spokesperson who will handle all incoming press requests and confidently discuss continuity of operations plans.

• Identify county / local health professional partner to refer for specific medical inquiries.

• Develop Q&A document to respond to media inquiries that includes a timeline of actions taken to date and prevention measures that have been put into place.

• Internal communications protocol for sharing information with other employees.

• With large events / conference being canceled, your organization should be prepared to respond to any incoming media inquiries coming out of the event:

• Holding statement to be used for media inquiries in response to conferences / travel being canceled.

Monitoring & Rapid Response

• Proactive brand monitoring is essential in a crisis scenario. Having dedicated team and tools in place, and a protocol to report and respond to adverse brand mentions is also vital, including:

• A baseline understanding of pre-event brand sentiment.

• Holding statements and content for social media platforms.

• Teams designated to monitor, post approved content in real-time, and measure sentiment and visibility throughout the event and beyond.

For more information, please contact Signal Executive Vice President Blake Androff.