It’s a tough time for business leaders. The rapid rise of public health warnings about COVID-19 and the ripple effects of the pandemic and our coping strategies pose a particular challenge for any organization, especially its communicators. The news cycle is dominated by the spread of the coronavirus and its repercussions. The effect on employee health is still unclear, and the full business impact has only begun. Here is some commonsense PR advice about communicating during a pandemic.
As with any emergency, communicators need to draw up a plan for the next 30-to-45 days. This is surely easiest for businesses that can continue operations with employees working remotely, but it’s even more critical for those who can’t. Which operations can continue over the next six weeks? What do employees and customers need to know in the short term? What measures are in place to protect those at risk? It can be helpful to set artificial parameters around an uncertain situation even when it will surely change. So, a notice that a small business will operate with a skeleton staff, or that all employees should plan to stay home until mid-April, for example, is clearer than an open-ended advisory.
We all want to assure customers or clients that nothing will be interrupted, and for many companies, that may be true. For PR agencies like ours, we can work from home offices and conduct business as usual, adapting our plans to the news story of the day. But this is not the time to overpromise. It may be an opportunity to get feedback through one-on-one conversations, but ultimately it’s the time to communicate the plan, make it clear that things may change, and promise prompt updates when they do.
Uncertainty is hard, so don’t be afraid to reach out more regularly than necessary to customers and stakeholders. Ensure consistency of message by coordinating website notices, customer and staff emails, employee calls with customers, and virtual meeting updates. Even with a staff that is very accustomed to today’s remote/distributed workforce, an unusual situation like a pandemic can be isolating and scary when so much is unclear. The coronavirus pandemic will pass eventually, but it’s a good reminder to everyone that direct communication helps people feel like part of the team and go about their routine in a relatively normal way. Out of sight can’t mean out of mind.
Nature hates a vacuum, and so does a “viral” news story like the COVID-19 outbreak. Business communicators should point employees and customers to good third-party information about the pandemic, like cdc.gov, but they can also be vigilant and proactive about rumors and fears of exposure. Yesterday I heard from a partner company with a client who recently visited their office and has since been diagnosed with the virus. Everything was disclosed fully, the office shut down and cleaned, and the staff directed to work from home for at least two weeks. The company leadership took charge of the situation before crazy rumors could start or spread.
People need practical information, like where to go to get factual updates, how to upgrade home office tech, or what to do when ordinary work isn’t possible. Sharing specific information like keeping the “six-foot distance” from others, curbing nonessential travel, or pointing to sources of that kind of information is most useful at a time when there’s a lot of general information but things are changing rapidly. It’s also helpful to offer ways to maintain contact with business customers, be helpful in the community, or go the extra distance to support colleagues.
For desk workers, it’s easy to keep scheduled calls and meetings and worthwhile to connect on Slack or Google hangouts where colleagues normally collaborate for work. But what about after-hours routines? It’s not always possible, but it’s worth the effort to find substitutes. (I was just invited to my first Zoom coffee.) Our staff has a standing date for Thursday-afternoon drinks, for example, but with most working remotely, we’ve planned a virtual Happy Hour with everyone chipping in on Venmo. It’s not the same, but it keeps the tradition alive and has everyone connected!
John Michael, Associate Director of Public Relations at education management company EAB, warns that a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic is a serious one, and it’s a good time to take extra care with media outreach. He’s limiting his scope to insights from internal subject-matter experts who can help campus and school district leaders manage disruption and make better decisions. For most of us, this is not a time to be newsjacking the outbreak with off-target or opportunistic media pitches. Similarly, it’s a good idea to suspend any automated social media updates and review blog and other thought leadership content for relevance and tone to make sure it’s appropriate in this news cycle.