Are we over-communicating COVID-19?

Some messages are essential for your audience and some updates are not helping to ease fears or build community. Here’s how to know the difference.


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

The answer is no. And absolutely yes. Let me explain.

We all know that employees are not monolithic. My own time doing hundreds of focus groups and surveys reveals this simple truth: For all the employees who say please stop, you’re communicating too much, there are others who say they’re in the dark and complain they don’t know what’s going on.

So even though we talk about being more efficient and eliminating redundancy (which I wholeheartedly support), it turns out that some repetition may be valuable to reach the greatest number of people.

But here’s the “yes” part of my answer: People can feel quickly overwhelmed, especially with a topic that carries such emotional weight. Add fear to the equation – of illness, of safety, of losing one’s job – and too much information can quickly reach the point of diminishing returns.

Many companies are doing this well, and more are finding their way every day. I break it down into three kinds of messages:

1. Facts and information. People want facts, and they want them in real time. Best channel: the intranet, with a regular, consistent daily update that everyone can rely on and easily access. Push them there. This is what Brett Lutz from ADM calls “a single source of truth.”

2. Insight and guidance. Given the latest facts, how are we responding? How will the trends influence what we do next, and what we do next week? Employees want to know what we’re doing next – and why. Best channel: leaders and managers, perhaps by email or virtual group meetings. (Managers really need support from communicators in this area.) Not every day, not every time something new happens, as something new happens every hour. Don’t chase the news. Be calm and offer a reliable assessment.

3. Compassion and inspiration. People want to be reassured, not given false hope. They want to be inspired, to know that we will get through this, that we will prevail, and that we all have to care for each other, in any way we can. Best channel: One person, probably the CEO, on video.

In one extraordinary case, all three of these levels of communication are embodied in one person. This is why people all over the country are tuning into the daily briefing by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo starts with facts, and he pulls no punches. Then he moves to trends and insights, talking about how COVID-19 is accelerating in New York, what needs to be done to combat it, and how what happens there is going to spread to the rest of the country.

He concludes by talking about compassion. He talks about his mother. He talks about your mother, and mine. He uses humor appropriately. (My favorite quote from Cuomo about his own isolation: “I live alone and even my dog is starting to irritate me.”) And he talks about love.

Hokey? Maybe, if you’re not paying attention. Reassuring? You bet.

I’m not suggesting that every CEO be Andrew Cuomo, or can be. That’s why communicators are so important here: delivering clear information and facts, in real time; analyzing trends and developments that can be localized for the employee audience; and helping our leaders lead with resolve and compassion.


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