The headlines surrounding the recent coronavirus outbreak can be alarming. Reports of a skyrocketing infection rate, new instances of the disease cropping up in previously untouched locations, and a rising death toll do little to allay fears. Whether you believe the risks are blown out of proportion – or aren’t being taken seriously enough – the bottom line is: people are talking. And when your people are talking, you want to be part of the conversation.
We’ve talked before around what role communicators play in times of uncertainty, which this certainly is. And with some companies changing business forecasts in response to the virus – many are predicting a sluggish start to 2020 due to a variety of virus-related impacts – employees may be wondering how and if that affects them. Between a swirling news cycle, a climate of heightened awareness, and lots of uncertainty, what’s a good internal communicator supposed to do?
Define your viewpoint: Employees are going to be wondering what their employer thinks of the issue at hand. In the instance of coronavirus or other epidemics, several topics are bound to come up. People may worry about catching the virus during their commute if it involves crowded public transit, or they may worry about disease transition to or from their fellow colleagues. While they may be worried about personal safety, most are probably also worried about disruption to work. They may wonder about business travel to certain regions. Naturally, they may ask for permission to work from home. Make sure to clearly communicate company policies about when working from home is okay.
Communicate your contingency plan: Undoubtedly, your company will have a contingency plan in place for emergencies, and perhaps will have already drafted a specific one for coronavirus and other pandemics. Intel, for example, has an existing Pandemic Leadership Team. It’s your job to make sure managers and employees are aware of these business continuity plans to mitigate as much confusion as possible. How this is communicated to the business also matters. Is it positioned as alarmist? As cautionary? Framing can make or break how a message is received.
Tell employees what you’re already doing — and be specific. I recently got a message from a university that attempted to allay any fears students may have about coronavirus. Except it was too vague: We are taking the situation very seriously. We have robust processes and procedures in place with support for students and staff is our top priority. Which processes? What kind of procedures? And what support is in place? When working through a crisis communication, eliminating ambiguity is key.
Remind employees of available wellness resources. In general, your people don’t need reminders of the basics of not catching a cold or the flu. That’s not helpful — they know about hand washing and covering their mouth when they cough or sneeze. What is helpful, however, is using this opportunity to promote general well-being programs you have. For example, do you offer colleagues discounts at health stores or pharmacies? This is an opportunity to sync up with the team responsible for your health and well-being programmes and combine forces.
Engage your diversity and inclusion (D&I) team to thwart potential discrimination before it starts. The Asian community has reported instances of discrimination as a result of coronavirus. Partner with your D&I team to proactively address the issue and remind employees that they are more similar than they are different.
Overall, an external crisis doesn’t have to become an internal one. Smart communication planning and well-placed messages to your workforce can make the difference between being ahead of the curve and being stuck playing catch up with the rumour mill.