10 tips for helpful, comforting COVID-19 communications

How you engage your employees during this crisis could set the stage for your relationship with these key stakeholders for years, and control how quickly your organization can bounce back.

Lead with empathy, not legalese

Editor’s note: We are re-running the top stories of 2020 as part of our year-end countdown.

Your employees will have long memories about how they’re treated during this crisis. When you come out on the other side, your brand reputation, your leaders’ reputations and the very culture of your company will hinge on how you communicated during this time.

No pressure, right? But communicating with your teams right now is, honestly, mostly common sense.

You want to be consistent, calm, empathetic—and try to have some fun. Here are 10 tips for internal communicators during this crisis;

1. Build a team, set expectations, and establish a rhythm.

If you haven’t already, make sure you clearly establish ownership for communications within your company. Your COVID-19 communications team should include the most senior people in the company, and they should meet regularly to discuss and adjust plans as the situation changes.

Clearly outline the channels to be used to communicate with employees at every level, including remote employees, people on leave and even those who have received job offers, but who haven’t started yet. Every stakeholder is important.

Establish a daily communications rhythm, and tell employees what to expect.

2. Above all, show empathy, compassion and understanding.

Let empathy be your guide.

Remember that your employees’ first priority is likely not your business’ wellbeing, it’s their own and that of their families. Many are working from home and trying to juggle work around their children or partners. Some might be solo parents, with no extra help. Others may not have devices for their children.

Having everyone at home adds an unprecedented level of complexity to their day. Let them know that you get it.

3. Triage is important.

Any communications you were preparing about future activities or plans for next quarter can wait. Stay focused on what’s going on right now and what your people need to know. (That’s all they’re going to pay attention to anyway.)

4. Be clear, calm and consistent—and get straight to the point.

I’m sure you’ve already had to make difficult decisions recently about your business, and there will no doubt be more to come. Now is the time to show up as a leader. If you need to communicate something difficult, such as layoffs or wage reductions, get straight to the point. Until your teams understand how they’re affected, they won’t hear anything else.

Even though you’re stretched, daily communication is the one thing you need to make time for. Without regular, trusted communication, misinformation and assumptions will circulate. Don’t promise anything, except that you will be honest, transparent, communicate regularly and that you will put employees first.

Make it clear to your teams that your company’s values are more important now than ever. Any decisions you make must reinforce those values—for example, if you’ve always said, “We’re in this together,” then any pay cuts you institute must apply to 100% of the company, especially to senior executives.

A deviation from your values at a time like this could tarnish the personal brand of executives and destroy the culture you’ve worked so hard to build.

 5. Rely on existing platforms, but vary your methods.

Now is not the time to roll out a new communications medium.

Use the platforms you’ve already got, but don’t rely exclusively on one type of message. If email is your primary communication method, for example, you can use it to communicate in multiple ways, using text, images, video, links to outside sources and more.

Put a personal face on your communications whenever possible by using video. A short message directly from leaders, in their voice and their own words, with a reassuring tone, can have a much bigger impact than a heavily edited written statement. In addition to recorded video, it’s also a great idea to hold virtual town hall meetings so your employees can hear from you live. The content of any messages or presentations should also be posted to your company intranet, if you have one.

6. Remember communication goes two ways.

It’s important that employees be given a way to have their questions answered, and that those answers be shared broadly. Solicit employee questions and answer them in your regular communications, and then maintain a Q&A repository somewhere that everyone can access. Also, arm your people managers with key messages and Q&As to help them understand how company policies are evolving and how to reassure their teams.

Another great idea is for leaders to have a 20- or 30-minute online coffee chat with a group of, maybe, ten people each day. This can give employees the chance to share their concerns or their successes, letting you take a pulse of the organization, which can then inform your communications plans and help you combat misinformation.

7. Align internal and external messaging.

Work closely with marketing/PR teams to make sure that whatever you’re telling your employees is consistent with what you’re saying externally. If you’re announcing something significant to customers, notify your people first. Be sure to prepare client-facing team members with key messaging and talking points about your operations, particularly any changes, interruptions or layoffs that clients need to know.

8. Help your people stay healthy.

There’s been a lot of talk about wellness in the workplace in recent years, and the COVID-19 crisis really ratchets up the importance of those discussions. In fact, it takes things to a whole new level.

Giving too-specific advice about what to eat and how to exercise might once have been seen as inappropriate—or even taboo—but now it’s an extremely valuable service. Help your employees build healthy habits while they’re working from home.

The average person probably isn’t aware of the powerful immunity-boosting properties of certain foods or the importance of exercise and sleep to our bodies’ defense systems. Look for trusted outside sources that you can share to help your people educate themselves (such as “How to Protect Yourself from COVID-19” by Dr. Mark Hyman, or “The Coronavirus Is Spreading. Time to Expand the Conversation About Prevention” by Arianna Huffington).

Share tips for healthy cooking and daily exercise that can be done at home, and make sure your employees know that their health is your priority.

9. Encourage humour, fun and personal connection.

These are serious times, but we won’t get through them if we only dwell on the negative. Help your employees find a lighter side of the situation by bringing humor and fun to your communications.

Yes, you must provide essential information, but consider closing your messages with a daily dose of entertainment. The internet is full of jokes and memes you could share, and it’s an fair bet that your employees could be induced to contribute their own humor.

Some companies are even using this opportunity to sponsor employee campaigns or contests. I heard of one that is running an at-home beer-brewing competition, with an in-person taste test planned for whenever this is all over. You could play conference-call bingo, or encourage people to submit photos of their home offices or stories of how they’re coping with their new “co-workers”—especially those young and furry types.

Unusual circumstances can also be a great opportunity for employees to get to know one another. Teams could have regular online video chats, virtual coffee dates or even happy hours. Who knows—by the end of this we could all end up with deeper connections and a stronger understanding of one another.

10. Go easy on yourself.

There’s no COVID-19 communications handbook; you won’t always know what you’re doing. Some of the things you try will be great. Others may not, and that’s OK. This is uncharted territory for all of us.

Don’t beat yourself up if something doesn’t work. Try something else, and be sure to take your own messages to heart. Follow your own healthy eating and exercise tips, and treat yourself with self-compassion and empathy.

Andrea Lekushoff is the president of  Broad Reach Communications. She can be reached at alekushoff@brpr.ca.

Learn more ways to inform, engage and inspire employees during a time of crisis and business transformation at our upcoming Best Practices in Internal Communication & Culture Virtual Conference.


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