As coronavirus spreads, how should employers respond?

The virus continues its grim march around the world, but panic is not in anyone’s interest. Here’s how communicators should respond.

Communicating w employees amid coronavirus outbreak

How should employers address concerns swirling around the seemingly inexorable spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus?

How much information is too much? What do we tell employees? Should everyone still come into the office?

Communication around an emerging global pandemic is key to calm fears. There is most certainly a wrong way to go about it (“Everybody panic!”). Let’s review current facts, crisis communication basics as well as level-headed tips for mitigating coronavirus-specific concerns.

Where we are now

Worldwide infections have risen to nearly 83,000, but the majority of those (more than 78,600) are in China. There are 60 confirmed cases of U.S. citizens and 10 in Canada. As for the rest of our hemisphere, Brazil has reported Latin America’s first (and only) confirmed coronavirus case thus far. And yes, it continues to spread, and the virus poses a serious concern for employers in every industry.

However, the mortality rate for Covid-19 appears to be just about 2%. That’s higher than the flu (less than 1% mortality rate), but much lower than SARS’ 10% death rate, for instance.

Comms advice and guidance

Wojtek Dabrowski, managing partner of Toronto-based Provident Communications, says this is a crucial time for companies to communicate more, not less, and to do so with clarity and consistency.

“In an outbreak like this one, companies become a key source of timely, trusted and actionable information for their employees,” he says. “That’s why it’s critically important that organizations provide regular updates focused not only on the business impact of the outbreak—travel restrictions, event cancellations and so on—but also on the personal health and safety impacts as well.”

Of course, the business show must go on, but this is an opportunity for company leaders to prove that they genuinely prioritize people over projects and profits.

“Companies also have to remember that their teams are nervous about what the outbreak will do in terms of derailing key goals and initiatives that might be in progress,” Dabrowki says. “For example, it’s more than disheartening to have a major project derailed because of travel restrictions, so leaders have to reassure employees that health and safety are the top priority and that everything else is secondary.”

Nick Lanyi, a crisis communication expert and affiliate consultant with Ragan Consulting Group, agrees that this is a vital time for organizations to act with empathy and humanity—without neglecting basic health instructions.

“Part of it is common sense,” he says. “Organizations need to make clear that they value employee health and safety. They need to act now to provide information and resources about what people can do to stay healthy and who they should speak to if they have questions. And they should proactively develop communication materials to respond to possible crisis scenarios that could occur (e.g., an employee contracts the virus).”

A panic-inducing situation such as this presents an opportunity for a communicator to be a calm, reassuring voice of reason. Steadying the ship amid turbulent times can even help you earn a seat at the decision-making table, according to crisis communication expert Gerard Braud. He suggests five steps for mitigating coronavirus crisis effects:

  • Conduct a vulnerability assessment.
  • Determine if your crisis plan needs any updates, such as handling social media queries about coronavirus’ impact on your business.
  • Craft pre-written news release statements and determine how you’ll respond if an employee falls ill.
  • Conduct coronavirus-specific media training with your spokespeople.
  • Hold a crisis communication drill scenario to ensure comms, HR, legal, execs, PR and marketing are all aligned and in sync on messaging—and prepared for potential fallout.

Where to start

Instead of ignoring this crisis and hoping for it to go away, take a proactive approach. Encourage executives to provide flexible work accommodations. Give your employees current, accurate information on the disease’s spread, and provide clear-headed instructions on how to stay safe. The WHO covers everything you need to know about coronavirus protection here, and the CDC offers a wealth of preventive tips and related resources as well. There are several coronavirus maps available, and there’s no shortage of valid news sources (and myth-busting links) you can share with employees. How you do so and on which platforms is up to you. Just keep the communication coming on channels that your employees prefer.

Communicate openly, but be judicious about the language you use amid this global crisis. Even if you’re in the “This is all overblown; it’ll be over soon” camp, keep in mind that none of this is a laughing matter. It’s not a time for jokes nor for mindlessly spreading false rumors.

Dabrowski exhorts business leaders to “communicate carefully” in coming weeks and months: “Above all else, companies have to remember that their employees are regular people—they’re nervous about what’s happening, overloaded with information, hearing scary rumors and worried about their families and their own safety. That’s why it’s crucial to communicate transparently and regularly, and only using information that has been verified as factually accurate.”

As Dabrowski says, “The worst thing an employer can do in a situation like this is overreact or spread inaccurate information that scares people.”

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