Communications professionals, including yours truly, often see themselves as indispensable in the business world, though ironically most businesses tend to view communications as something that’s nice to have.
That disconnect has changed with recent global events.
As with any crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need for a dedicated communications plan and support for businesses of all sizes, across industries, and at all times.
The key is making sure that once the crisis has passed, the communications lessons learned in the workplace are implemented and adhered to even during carefree times.
When a crisis hits, the knee-jerk reaction is to retreat, hoping the matter will blow over. And if leadership does decide to deal with a crisis, it tends to focus on external audiences, specifically clients and its reputation in the marketplace.
Because COVID-19 literally cuts right to life-or-death situations, companies, rightfully so, turned inward and focused on their most valuable assets: employees.
The silver lining of crises is that change happens. It has to one way or another (for better opposed to worse preferably, though the latter can happen). Especially in the COVID-19 crisis, there’s too much at stake to preserve the status quo and not step back to assess how we can improve business operations.
The key, however, is making sure that once the crisis has passed, the communications lessons learned in the workplace are implemented and adhered to even during carefree times.
The primary communications lesson learned from COVID-19 is that every plan starts with leaders thinking first about their own people.
How a company handles itself internally — with or without a crisis — and how it treats and communicates internally serves as a guideline for consistent external communications as well as a bellwether for external perceptions.
Case in point, Boeing’s handling of its 737 Max design is the poster child of disrespecting its own employees. Specifically, the airplane manufacturer failed to listen to safety concerns from its own pilots and remained tone deaf in the media, and we all know how that’s playing out.
By now, with COVID-19 still very much in play, hopefully most companies have crisis and communications plans in place or are seriously working on them or considering them.
Given that the starting point of a solid communications plan begins with reaching internal audiences, the below guidelines can be used in the current situation, though also in future scenarios, regardless of the degree of seriousness. Naturally, the pointers can be tailored to each company, depending on its size, infrastructure and culture.
The most efficient way to create a communications plan or protocol is to create a crisis task force, preferably before a crisis, not during. The core team of the task force will likely remain the same throughout different crises, though involvement from departments will vary depending on the type of crisis and severity.
In addition to leadership, task force members should come from the following departments:
- human resources
- information technology
Depending on the crisis, this core team will contact the appropriate people within the organization to investigate the matter and devise next steps in resolving it, including informing internal and external stakeholders, in that order.
For example, if a company is sued for employment discrimination, the legal and HR departments will play key roles along with leadership and the communications team, especially if the matter is leaked to the press. If there’s a cybersecurity issue, the administrative, finance, IT and legal teams will work with leadership and communications.
In the above examples and in the COVID-19 situation, communications professionals can help in striking the appropriate tone in communicating with employees. The employee communications will also lay a solid foundation for any external messaging, as consistency is vital.
Another factor to consider when communicating with employees is pacing dissemination of information to avoid email fatigue. During a crisis like COVID-19, entities are best served by monitoring only trusted websites, such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control, over news outlets as they can be inaccurate, which in turn would prompt follow-up email corrections.
What leadership says and how it is relayed in tone and communication channels are highly important. The best a company can do is to let employees know where things stand right now, opposed to projecting. The more streamlined and authentic the messaging, the more employees will feel valued and connected.
Depending on a company’s culture and size, email channels may be effective, or an all-hands “Town Meeting” may be appropriate so employees can ask questions.
Regarding tone, consider the immediate and long-term needs of employees, business and clients, and do what is in the spirit of the business’s culture. Ironically, crises also serve as opportunities to underscore a company’s core beliefs during a difficult time. It’s an excellent opportunity to share and reinforce company policies as well as remind people whom they can talk to for more information.
When a company is actively dealing with a crisis, leaders can employ the below pointers:
- Acknowledge the situation, yet project comfort and continuity.
- Spell out what employees/clients can expect — define and distribute policies and procedures.
- Direct employees to a frequently updated intranet/webpage that includes all information needed, from safety tips to insurance policies, business communications (such as FAQs with answers for client-facing employees).
- Let employees know that leadership is still out there, driving the business.
- Consider hosting a virtual “Town Hall” panel discussion so that employees can ask questions.
- Encourage people to relax and let them know things are OK:
— instill normalcy during these times;
— everyone is working remotely with children, pets, other family members, etc., so try to create a sense of community by sharing photos, meeting via video;
— use video chats for regularly scheduled meetings.
Each company’s communications plan and approach reflect its own culture. The most effective communications are authentic, transparent and timely, though only if a company sees communications as essential to its business strategy.
A former legal journalist and former in-house communications professional at an Amlaw 100 law firm, Claire Papanastasiou is director at Matter Communications.