One of the first days after the U.S. went on high alert about COVID-19, a client asked me if there was a “playbook” to use for external communications about the coronavirus. “No,” I said with a wishful smile. “We are in uncharted territory here.”
A few organizations surely invested in writing a crisis communications “playbook” for a pandemic; the vast majority did not. Today, the playbook is being written hundreds of times over by corporate communicators around the world. After spending many hours helping clients communicate about COVID-19 implications to the audiences that matter most to their business, I wanted to share a few of my most relevant tips.
When we are in uncharted territory, it’s good to look around just as much as you look ahead. What are others communicating? What can you learn from that? In some cases, you may have a unique opportunity to innovate through your communications. For most organizations communicating about COVID-19, it’s perfectly acceptable to be an “early adopter” or “part of the pack” with the actions you put in place and communicate. Most important: Avoid being a laggard with your communication.
Communication about difficult things should come from a human being, not from an inbox or “the management.” In times like this, that human is ideally the most senior position. We are seeing CEOs stepping into the forefront, and some of the best are showing us their humanity in the process. Tactically speaking, short videos may work harder than email, and can be shared further on busier-than-ever social media channels.
Customers and Employees Go Together
When communicating what you are doing for customers, include what you are doing for employees. In these times, what is internal is external – often your customer communication can serve your employees as well. Build greater customer and employee loyalty by sharing the specific ways that you are doing the right thing for your workforce. At a time like this, employees want to be reminded that they are a critical asset and worthy investment.
Follow the Rule of 3-to-1
For every communication you put out externally, you should be putting out at least three internally. Your employees are your most valuable asset, keep them informed early and often. Praise them and their good work at least daily, in groups and individually. When possible, tell them new information slightly ahead of when you will share externally. If that is not possible, communicate externally and internally at the same time – and adequately equip and position your front-line leaders to answer external questions and share feedback with leadership.
Choose the words in your communications carefully. Nuance matters more than ever. Have others read what you write and give feedback. Content can be put together quickly, but a first draft is not likely ready for distribution. Take the time to get your word choice right. One example that I’ve sadly edited out of several drafts these past two weeks: We cannot “ensure the safety” of others but we can “take precautions.”
Flip the Script
At a time like this, it’s natural to focus on telling your audience what they cannot do. After all, many businesses and organizations are closed or cannot operate fully and many are being laid off and furloughed. As state and federal orders change by the day, we are all settling in to this temporary “stay at home” lifestyle. Now is the time for corporate communicators to “flip the script” and focus on what we can do. We can get creative and innovate. We can accept new ways of working (including kids on laps and cats on keyboards). We can pick up goods curbside, stay healthy and fit with online tools, connect with our colleagues using technology. And we can give more to support people who have been hit hardest and need it most right now. In the name of mental health and business health, we need to search for and talk about what we can do, despite the many things lost that we rightfully are grieving.
Be a Helper
Think about how your organization uniquely could help others. There are moments where organizations are showing their unique value more than ever. Sometimes it means uncharacteristically stepping into the spotlight to offer the same services, which actually have risen in value during the pandemic. Other times, it’s finding an authentic way give charitably to your community. The point: Be of service in some way. Then share your story. It's good for business, it may inspire others to give, and it creates a point of pride for your employees.
The COVID-19 communications playbook is still being written, but the tenets of solid crisis and corporate communications ring true in every one of these tips. I hope some of you find this guidance helpful, whether you have a communications team, the help of a corporate communications agency like Evo Communications, or are “going MacGyver” to communicate in these challenging times.
Take care and be well. Like nothing ever, we are all in this together.