Chris Rosica
Chris Rosica

On March 11, 2020, the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) officially reached pandemic status, which, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), means the “worldwide spread of a new disease.”

Regardless of whether you are a school, nonprofit, Integrated Delivery Network (IDN), corporation, transportation provider, municipality, NGO, or other entity, it is vital to know the facts and communicate proactively with all stakeholders-using clear, compassionate, and understandable messages. This not only demonstrates leadership but reduces everyone’s stress levels and instills trust among key stakeholders.

In times of crisis, you must prepare operationally. At the same time, you must prepare to effectively communicate as well. These fundamentals will guide you in successfully planning and communicating during this time of heightened public concern:

1. Swiftly Establish Operational Protocols & Procedures

The first step is to create a Coronavirus Crisis Team. This should consist of such senior executives as CEO, SVP of HR, SVP of Communications, COO, CMO, CFO, CTO, CISO, GM, and department heads (e.g., sales, facilities, supply chain, etc.). This team should meet and establish strategic imperatives, communication protocols, and a meeting rhythm.

For many organizations, the bulk of the work required centers on establishing business continuity and human resource policies for coronavirus. For others that serve the public, the focus should be public safety, policy, and clear, thorough communications.

There is a great deal to determine from an organizational perspective. Depending on your organizational structure, your Crisis Team will want to discuss and agree on such policies and systems as:

  • Continuity - This is the most critical piece as the livelihood of workers depends on the livelihood of the organization. Proper planning ensures you’ll be able to serve your students, patients, constituents, customers, consumers, and other stakeholders—even if you cannot open your facility, company, store, school, restaurant, or operation’s doors. This means getting creative and using the Internet to promote internal collaboration and better serve your publics. If appropriate, telemedicine, at-home instruction, and home-delivery options should be explored and implemented. In this time of adaptation, it’s imperative to make sure your people understand their roles and your expectations in the new service/product delivery structure.
  • Creating a Safer Workplace - If an employee has such symptoms as cough, shortness of breath, or fever, immediately encourage them to self-quarantine and seek medical attention to be tested for coronavirus. In addition: actively encourage sick employees to stay home and remain in contact with their doctors—and implement rigorous environmental cleaning protocols.
  • Reporting Structure - Ask employees to alert HR if they’ve tested positive for coronavirus (or a family member or friend has). This should immediately trigger internal procedures and communications to inform and guide stakeholders (keeping names and details strictly confidential). Healthcare providers should report COVID-19 cases to their local or state department of health (DOH), which, in turn, inform the CDC. According to the CDC: “Persons who are placed under active monitoring or facilitated self-monitoring should follow instructions provided by their local health department or occupational health professionals, as appropriate.” As we know, this includes a two-week quarantine period.
  • Sick time - Given the spread of coronavirus, you may have to modify this policy and add a section for pandemics and epidemics. This is particularly true when a longer quarantine period is being recommended by the medical community, WHO, and CDC.
  • Technology - Whether or not you are providing laptops, tablets, or other mobile devices to employees, you will want to establish email and social media policies surrounding this or any other pandemic (update your social policy and, if you don’t have one, create one—and include language on epidemics and pandemics). Remind team members that they should take precautions and avoid at all costs clicking on links in emails as there are a flood of phishing scams, many of which use coronavirus scare tactics. Should they need information regarding the pandemic beyond what you will be providing, they should seek guidance only from the CDC, WHO, and local DOH websites. They should avoid seeking advice given on social media channels altogether.
  • Tracking COVID-19 - One member of the Crisis Team should be responsible for monitoring the CDC and WHO throughout the day for any new alerts, updates, or guidelines. This information will be disseminated to internal stakeholders and, in some instances, shared with the external stakeholders outlined in #2, below.
  • Travel - To protect the workforce and the public, guidelines and policies surrounding travel must be established and followed for all employees. A European travel ban was put into effect by President Trump on the evening of March 11, 2020. See the WHO website for travel advice.
  • Work-from-home - You’ll also want to update this policy and communicate what’s expected from team members and what they can expect of you—letting them know upfront that the situation is fluid and may change based on the pandemic’s trajectory and the CDC’s guidance.

2. Communicate Internally with Clarity & Detailed Information

In times of a public health crisis, communication and coordination are essential. Glen Nowak, director of the Center for Health & Risk Communication at the University of Georgia and former director of media relations at CDC says it is crucial to eliminate mixed messaging. Nowak says this confusion can be problematic “because it communicates that people who are providing guidance aren’t on the same page.”

Successful communications start with employees and internal stakeholders. With coronavirus, it is no different.This means communicating—ongoing—with stakeholders (patients, staff, partners, customers, board of directors, investors, suppliers, local government, and others) about the pandemic—how it’s impacting the organization and those you serve.

Now is the time for CEOs and top executive to communicate with employees and stakeholders and reassure them by stating the steps the organization is taking. He/she should record an organic (not highly produced) 60-second video—on a current model smart phone­—describing the current state of affairs, steps being taken (to disinfect surfaces and protect people), what is planned next and why. This can supplement such written communications as direct mail pieces, emails, texts, and social posts. Then, have another C-level executive communicate regularly and as things progress. Chief executives should remain visible and communicate regularly to bolster confidence.

Internal communications should include but not be limited to:

  • Your concern and commitments.
  • Updated policies and procedures, with an emphasis on business continuity. This puts people at ease and demonstrates strong management.
  • Customer or public communiques regarding continuity, public policy, protective measures, and the solutions you are implementing. This should include how to properly disinfect hard surfaces (computers and technology, office furniture, desktops, etc.) that can transmit the virus.
  • Frequent updates from credible sources.

3. Create a Crisis Communications Scenario for Coronavirus

A crisis is an event that causes a significant threat to operations or image and that can escalate if not handled properly. Crises can cause severe reputational damage and deplete employee morale, so it is important to implement a plan ahead of time (or quickly if you do not have one in place). This includes preparing pre-approved messaging for specific situations that may arise.

Ultimately, the course of action for crisis planning depends on the type of organization you work for. Brainstorming the top communications scenarios your organization should prepare for is a good place to start.

This should be an adjunct to your existing crisis plan and include such elements as:

  • What happens when a confirmed case is established in your organization
    • Protocols, so all staff are immediately reminded about the company’s policies and procedures and given next steps
      • What measures you’ll implement logistically/operationally
    • Where staff may be working from and during what time frame, logistics around departmental and company-wide communications and “meetings,” reporting, client relations, technology support, and other considerations
    • Developing social posts, communiques, and email copy/templates —in advance. These can be updated as circumstances unfold
    • What disinfecting procedures should be utilized
  • How your facility may be compromised and what steps you’re taking to address this (there may be several crisis scenarios that fall under this category)
  • Steps to take and communiqués that outline what happens if your chief executive or other C-level executives are infected
  • What to do if your facility or staff are blamed for infecting others for negligence

4. Be Prepared for Media Inquiries

It is imperative to be prepared for media inquiries, which requires a number of critical steps, including anticipating difficult questions; developing factual messaging that conveys empathy, transparency, and concern; establishing and media training a company spokesperson; and monitoring social and other media commentary.

5. Try to Remain Calm & Stay Current on the Facts

With 1,701 confirmed cases in the United States and more than 125,000 globally as of this date, it is prudent to be concerned about coronavirus. Regardless, fear levels are rapidly escalating, which impacts our society and our economy. It is imperative to stick with the facts. According to the WHO, COVID-19 mortality rates are a fraction of SARS and EBOLA. As testing becomes more widely available in the US, according to experts, we should see mortality rates drop precipitously. The CDC provides regular updates on their website,, as does the WHO at

During times of crises, stakeholders will rely on your organization’s leadership to provide answers, solutions, and guidelines to follow. Ahead of the crisis, prepare statements/communiques for employees, social followers, and the stakeholders we’ve discussed, including the media.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, it is vital to maintain open, transparent communication with your stakeholders and the community. People panic when they feel a lack of control, and if you are consistent, calming, and communicative, you will be supporting those who matter most and protecting your organization’s best interests.


Chris Rosica is President and Chief Executive Officer of New Jersey-based Rosica Communications, a PR & crisis communication agency specializing in healthcare, education, non profits & other industries. He can be reached via the Rosica website or [email protected]