Unprecedented. It’s a word we’ve heard dozens of times in the last weeks to describe the current COVID-19 pandemic. Keeping employees safe and informed is the biggest challenge when most will be working from home and those who are essential workers are feeling increased anxiety. The speed and scale of the coronavirus pandemic is beyond the crisis plans companies have developed in the past.
Corporations are turning to communications now more than ever to navigate these uncharted waters. Overall, 81% of respondents report the communications function has been “important” or “very important” to their company’s COVID-19 response, according to a recent study by the Institute for Public Relations
It’s not business as usual, and the number one lesson in making decisions and crafting communications is to be compassionate.
- Lead with empathy. People are worried about their health and their livelihoods. Communications should be respectful of the anxiety employees feel. Messaging should instill confidence and calm, and address each issue and concern.
- Align information with local authorities. The Federal government, World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local state and city governments are sometimes putting out conflicting information. It’s best to follow what the local authorities are saying—and focus on the health experts over the politicians. And for global companies, it’s imperative to be knowledgeable and sensitive to what is happening in that specific country.
- Think through all compensation implications. Whole Foods made an early misstep when it suggested employees donate their sick days to each other. Employees need to know what the company will do for them. Carefully consider what your organization’s pay and benefit policies will be during this unusual time and changing government regulations. Every decision reflects on your company’s reputation, short- and long-term.
- Use data. In time of crisis, factual information can help minimize fear…and there are still many misconceptions about COVID-19. Be careful to share the correct information. Data also plays an important role in communications strategy. Use it to know how and what employees are reading on your various communications channels, and adapt your plan accordingly.
- Tell a story. Sharing real stories from employees—how they are coping, tips for working remotely, how it feels to be one of the few people who still needs to report to the office or lab—remains a compelling way to engage and motivate your workforce and show a human side.
- Plan for live interaction. Emails from CEOs remain key as do robust FAQs on websites, but employees are hungry for live communications. Think virtual town halls and smaller group video chats. This is particularly important for employees who may feel isolated working from home for the first time.
- Make it a dialogue. Companies see communications as a priority, but it can’t be all one-way. It’s imperative to hear what is on employees’ minds—their concerns and ideas. Build in response approaches—whether it’s direct feedback to an email, or extra time for Q&A on calls and webcasts. Consider doing a short survey to uncover employee sentiment. And now is the time to promote your social channels like Yammer for employee interaction.
- Help employees stay physically and mentally healthy. Share tips for diet, exercise, meditation and other techniques that will enable your teams to weather the storm body and soul.
- Consider employees plus. If employees are working from home, it’s likely that their partners, children, parents and others are as well. Take into consideration their current realities and, where appropriate, include points in the communications that recognize this unique scenario. Encourage leaders to be patient as working from home for many is a new experience and may take time to adjust to the new routine.
- Leverage foundations and giving. Demonstrating compassion within your communities is also important.Employees will want to know what you are doing to make a difference. Mobilize your Foundation or your other giving programs to help those in need…and provide virtual opportunities for your employees to participate.
Valerie Di Maria is principal at the10company, a women-owned strategic PR firm in New York. She has held CMO/CCO posts at GE Capital, Motorola and Willis.