25 March 2020
Coronavirus and communications
This paper collates both our advice and that of other communication professionals to help organisations communicate decisions and updates relating to COVID-19 and Coronavirus. Please feel free to share this information with others. Our sources include Chartered Institute of Public Relations, Public Relations Consultants Association and Local Public Service Communications (representing and supporting PR professionals in local government and other public services).
Overall guidance: the top 10 tips
It is clearly not our remit to offer advice on how to respond on medical grounds to the current crisis but instead to help organisations communicate those decisions. Our overall guidance, that can be usefully used as a checklist, is:
- Consider all stakeholders both internally and externally – and think from their perspective about the information they need.
- Put the wellbeing of your staff, customers, suppliers and the communities you serve at the centre of your thinking and consideration.
- Be timely – both in responding speedily to issues and circumstances. Think ahead of what might happen next day, next week and next month. Plan accordingly.
- Avoid speculation; if you don’t know ‘when normal services will resume’ then say so; people are more understanding when they are ‘levelled with’.
- Be clear and concise in what you say. Use plain language and, as far as you are able, be definite (e.g. ‘We are closing with immediate effect…’)
- Be consistent in messaging – albeit that has to be in the framework of an evolving situation e.g. our overriding priority is to ensure the well-being of etc. Include, if relevant, links to current health guidelines in all communication. Make sure you liaise with any partner organisations or relevant stakeholders.
- Keep your audiences informed. Wherever appropriate, state when you will next send an update – and stick to it – even if it is to say, there are no further developments or changes.
- For consistency, communication should be seen to be coming from the same senior individual on behalf of the organisation as opposed to an ‘anonymous’ source. Decide who that person should be. (You can always introduce others to provide specialist comment.)
- Monitor your comms channels especially social media and respond speedily. If there are concerns, criticisms or specific questions, then endeavour to take the discussion off-line, in order to be able to respond more personally and without having to share or comment on what might be a personal situation.
- Remember that how you respond to this evolving situation - and are seen to respond - is critical to achieving trust, support and advocacy.
And finally, and this might seem obvious but could be overlooked, you are communicating with an individual – albeit there may be lots of them - who is most likely concerned, has a family, aging relatives and financial and employment worries. It helps to express concern and support, the disappointments over cancelling and postponing gatherings with family, friends and business colleagues. We particularly like this sentiment expressed by The NAMM Foundation (USA) in their daily bulletin: “All of us at The NAMM Foundation express our concern and support for everyone that is experiencing the realities of the current global health crisis. We hope that you and your families are doing well and taking all the required precautions to be well.”
Communicating with employees
- Employees should be kept up to date with what is happening. Failure to do so can lead to speculation and rumour. Reinforce your use of and reference to external advisors and sources of information such as Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, NHS, World Health Organisation, Public Health England and of course, the government.
- You may not know the answer to everything – in fact it is unlikely you will - but you do need to provide a route for engagement where staff can ask questions. You can set up a dedicated email address or a group on one of your internal social networks. After a while, use the questions (anonymous) and responses as an FAQ.
- Be consistent in your approach and make sure everyone knows how, where and when future updates will be provided. A single source of news and updates for the organisation is best. Avoid ‘trickle-down’ communications.
- Larger organisations or those with a remote workforce should consider using video. Staff like to see updates directly from leaders – helping to bring reassurance and clarity on the organisation’s approach.
- Stick to what you know and what you use. Don’t experiment with new communication tools or platforms – just use what people already know and use. Traditional channels can be just as effective as digital such as posters, leaflets and even letters with pay slips.
- Comms specialists need to work closely with HR to discuss the policies or plans you have in place for those people who want or need to stay at home (self-isolate). The first decision sets a precedent.
- Many employers are already using a Business Continuity Plan. If you don’t have one, create your own Cobra meeting (it stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A If you did not know!) with IT, Operations, HR and Comms together. They should be meeting frequently whether in person or remotely.
- Most employers have already implemented a work-from-home policy. Can people access the tools they need to do their jobs, and do you have the facilities for conference calls/video call? (IT suppliers have had a run on sales of laptops.)
Updated information particularly for those working in the public sector but others too
There is an excellent resource that has been developed by Local Public Service Communications (thank you!) that is actively maintained and updated. It includes useful signposts for information, timely news and graphics from official sources. It is accessible here: https://localpublicservicecomms.org/2020/03/04/coronavirus/
And if you do need help…
Use your existing advisors of course but feel free to give us a call for a chat, guidance or longer-term support if you wish: Clarke Associates - Tel. 0121 702 2525 includes details of our out-of-hours service and contact details; issues such as this are no respecters of working hours and we are always happy to help.
David Clarke DL FCIPR