Businesses and non-governmental organizations around the world are quickly working to develop communication management plans to respond to the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, which spread around the world in early 2020. Here are 10 things to keep in mind when assembling your organization’s COVID-19 plans.
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Form a COVID-19 task force and command room
Establish a team from different functions to assess your organization’s coronavirus needs and risks. The team should include representatives from your key functions, including supply chain, human resources, communications, operations, sales, legal, health, safety and environment (HSE), and more. Determine the task force’s command and decision-making structure. For key decisions, who is the ultimate authority and who needs to be informed? See the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (U.S. CDC): Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease.
- Only specific, appointed people from your organization’s COVID-19 task force should be communicating about the company’s situation with employees and external audiences (media, investors, customers, suppliers, local government, etc.).
- It’s important to agree internally about what will be communicated before any announcements are made to assure that messaging will be consistent across different audiences. Develop message development protocols that will enable prompt drafting and approval of statements so that communications can be completed in a timely way and not bogged down by endless edits. Consider when legal approval of statements may be necessary. Spokespeople should only answer questions they know the answers to. It’s a bad practice to give a “best guess” answer. Instead, questioners should be told, “We’ll look into this and get back to you as soon as possible.”
- Be prepared to provide timely updates as necessary and inform stakeholders where they can go for additional information or questions.
- Regarding corporate travel, see the World Health Organization’s (WHO) written travel guidelines for COVID-19.
- Do a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threat) analysis. What protocols for cleanliness does your organization have or need? Is your custodial staff increasing its cleaning and disinfection of touch surfaces (restrooms, door knobs, kitchen and dining areas)? Do they have the correct personal protective equipment? They should avoid cleaning methods that might aerosolize pathogens (pressure washing, steam cleaning). What emergencies should you plan for?
Monitor communications updates from your industry’s leading associations, as well as public health organizations
Develop a protocol system for monitoring daily, hourly and emergency information.
- Keep in mind that disinformation travels as fast or faster than accurate information. “Fake news” about COVID-19 is being spread rapidly around the world, including by some government officials with no background in public health. Your organization should seek advice from scientific and medical officials with experience in epidemiology, such as those in the WHO, the U.S. CDC, or similar national government health organizations in other countries (see list below). The WHO is publishing daily bulletins on the status of the virus, has developed instructions for dealing with the virus, and has produced a document on COVID-19 myths. The organization’s Q&A on COVID-19 is also very helpful.
- Monitor travel advisories through your national health authority. The list of countries placed under travel advisories continues to grow. If employees or their immediate family members travel to a country under a travel advisory or have been in contact with someone who has, you should instruct them to stay home and self-quarantine for two weeks.
Develop contingency plans for each of your audiences and organizational functions
Should an outbreak occur near your offices, what should happen first, second and third? Who is authorized to make prompt decisions? Who should be informed? By what communications methods? What messages should they hear? What are the protocols for providing updates?
Create a communications plan
Review your audiences’ needs. Who are the key stakeholders with need for information from your organization? What information do they need, who needs it first, and for what purpose? Consider focusing your efforts around empowerment, practice, and compliance. It’s vital that people understand the importance of complying with practices such as handwashing and good hygiene to keep themselves and others safe, but you can communicate this importance in an accessible, friendly manner. Develop messaging and communications strategies for each audience, and assign a communications lead. What communications tools will you need? How will you communicate with each audience should your organization need to work differently (text, email, website, etc.)? Have you tested your emergency communications system and tools? What should your tone be always (e.g., calm, reasoned) and never (e.g., panicked)?
Develop an HR action plan.
Explore what the rules will be if your employees need to work from home. Will pay continue as normal? What about non-salaried employees? What does your government require? Review telecommuting policies and accountability. Beware of bias, discrimination and exclusion at your organization, and always be protective of employee personal privacy and confidentiality as required by law. Follow up on reports of discrimination and respond to concerns.
Communicate with your employees.
Prepare statements/intranet news for employees and regularly pass on information to them.
Reference the aforementioned U.S. CDC section aimed at employers with guidelines on preparing your company for an outbreak of the virus. Educate employees about the virus, including: How it is spread and what they can do to protect themselves and others around them. Refer to the WHO document “The Rational Use of Personal Protective Equipment for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).” This document explains why face masks are not appropriate for the general public except for healthcare workers and people who are ill. It also provides information on what preventative measures do work. Communicate on a regular basis with employees to let them know of any ongoing developments and what the company is doing to handle COVID-19. Truthful communication will build trust, while lack of information or disinformation will result in mistrust. If an employee tests positive for the virus, tell the employees they have been in contact with that they have been exposed to the virus at work. (However, respecting sick employees’ privacy is important, so don’t reveal their names.) Do you communicate the current status via live ticker on the intranet? The U.S. CDC has four risk categories for individuals. It may be helpful to share these with employees. Some employees may be reassured to learn that they are not at risk. Sick employees at work should be isolated from other employees and sent home immediately. Tell employees that if they have symptoms of respiratory illness, they should not come to work and should stay home until they have had no fever for 24 hours.
Communicate with your customers (broadly defined to include clients, patients, or students)
These are the lifeblood of your organization’s business and mission. Maintaining their trust and confidence during a potential coronavirus-related disruption is critical.
Identify the concerns of your customers (clients, patients, students, hotel guests, etc.). Develop messaging that assures customers your organization has done all it can to ensure consistent delivery of products and services they need and expect. If there are delays in processes, timing, substitutions, etc., make sure your customers are informed. Let your customers know what steps your business has taken to protect them from exposure to the virus. Provide resources for additional online information, and let customers know how they can get answers to their questions. Consider an FAQ document with business questions your customers will ask and/or setting up a hotline as appropriate. Stay in regular touch with your customers with updated information, including after things return to normal.
Prepare for media inquiries
Prepare statements for the press and website news.
Keep in mind this may not be the best time to release company news. Journalists care about how the COVID-19 outbreak affects the global economy, and what each country’s prevention efforts are. Media outlets are devoting time and budget to covering those topics. For example, in Korea, SK Hynix, Samsung, and Hyundai facilities have had to shut down for one to two weeks because employees have been sick with coronavirus. This type of news is high-priority for Korean and Japanese editors, and they are not likely to focus right now on topics like product launches (such activities should be delayed if media coverage is considered very important). In China, the media is trying to get back to normal, with the encouragement of the Chinese government, even though the outbreak is still very serious there.
Consider which messaging about your organization may clear up confusion for potential travelers. For example, journalists covering the travel and tourism industry will want to know if a property has changed its cancellation policies due to the virus, and whether visitors are at financial risk if they need to cancel or postpone their trip because of a sudden outbreak of the virus in the community the plan to visit. Most companies will probably not want to comment on how the virus outbreak may or may not be affecting their business. We recommend that organizations only discuss their policies relating to the outbreak, their advice to employees on staying healthy, and their plans to keep meeting customer needs.
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Consider possible questions from the media on the following topics
(These questions are relevant for preparing communication materials as well.)
Supply chain and production
Is production capacity guaranteed? What activities have been initiated to prepare for large numbers of sick employees? Is a temporary shutdown of production being considered in case of a pandemic?
Are you partnering with officials and other organizations (WHO, national health authorities, etc.) to stay informed?
Are responsibilities within your company for addressing certain aspects of the virus outbreak clear (occupational safety expert, company doctor, etc.)?
Is there a special guide or plan of action for various situations? How long do you estimate it will take for your organization to get back to normal?
Are staff responsibilities clear in case of a crisis?
What actions have you taken to secure the safety of your employees (work-at-home options, free sanitizers, etc.)?
Which employees and business units can work from home?
Plan for the future
According to The New York Times and other experts, COVID-19 may come back more strongly later this year. Evaluate your practices and plan to sustain them. Monitor the effectiveness of communication to different audiences. Immediately address fear and prejudice against different groups of people directly and with science-based facts. Consider the WHO/UNICEF/International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ Guide to Preventing and Addressing Social Stigma.
The outbreak of COVID-19 is impacting every person and business on this planet. Customers, employees, investors and stakeholders are worried. To keep everyone informed of your actions, a newsroom is more important than ever.
Peter Keijzer is a member of the supervisory board at RTV Noord, a regional radio and TV station in the Netherlands. He also participates as a board member at Lubbers de Jong, a full-service PR and content marketing agency. With a background as Chief Sales Officer at Dell Technologies and 25+ years of experience, Peter specializes in helping steer leaders, teams and companies to find opportunities and maximize growth.. Connect on LinkedIn or send an email