How communicators can lead through and beyond COVID-19

Carve out time to listen, respond to feedback, and be a consistent beacon of hope.

How to stop wasting time

All of the people I know are worried. All of our clients are worried. What do we say, when do we say it, how do we keep business going and get through COVID-19? There are a lot of ways to answer these questions, but the one I keep coming back to is “communicate.”

As simple as it sounds, it’s hard to do. In many ways, crises can make us freeze, but if we keep our thoughts and words to ourselves, we’ll just incite more panic. Information – even the stuff we don’t want to hear – gives us context, and that’s better than hearing nothing at all. Now more than ever, businesses have an obligation to lead through communication.

Communicators must keep these three things top-of-mind as we navigate the pandemic:

  • Internal comms is external comms, and vice versa. This is a big mindset shift required for communicators right now.
  • Remain flexible in all situations, and know that what worked an hour ago may not work now.
  • Be as transparent and compassionate as possible.

Here’s more guidance on how to lead today:

Prioritize communications with employees.

Be clear, transparent, thorough and supportive. Realize that every note you send or call you make can, and likely will, be shared with others internally and externally. On the flipside, make sure that any company news you plan to share externally, you give your employees a heads up first. Nobody wants to find out crucial information related to their job from a social media post or a press release.

Increase the frequency of your internal communication.

I’ve been recommending boosting messaging by a factor of three, but that may prove to be conservative. Consider your method of communication, too. Hearing voices and seeing faces can be comforting for folks working remotely. And let people know when they can expect to hear from you; this can be another way to mitigate anxiety.

Arm internal leaders with the ability to communicate – with employees, partners and customers.

Draft statements or create an FAQ page, and consistently update your team. Make sure everyone is on the same page and communicating the same message. Then empower internal leaders to answer the questions they can, and flag issues to you (or your COVID-19 comms taskforce) immediately.

Constantly revisit your business continuity and crisis communications plans.

Stay abreast of changes in your environment and roll out information to your employee and customers as quickly as possible, before a local authority or government body does it for you. This includes business continuity plans, supply chain effects, changes in work environments and so on. Be succinct, but thorough, and reiterate as much as is factual about business as usual (which is to say, business in this new, shifting environment).

Use all channels at your disposal to communicate any changes to partners and customers immediately.

Use email as your primary point of contact, and back it up with a statement on your website. Pin your public-facing statement (for partners and customers) to the top of your social channels – your employees will also read it. All of this alerts your audiences that yes, you too are aware of and are managing this crisis, while working hard to serve your clients and employees better than ever.

How to lead moving forward

Create your single source of truth.

It might be a landing page or updates in your newsroom, or perhaps a Twitter channel where you share COVID-19 updates if that makes sense for your business. While it’s important to alert across channels, don’t use one channel one time and another the next. This goes back to making sure all your teams are on the same page and information isn’t siloed or splintered.

Don’t be tone-deaf. 

Be sensitive. Communicate with empathy, and steer clear of the hard sell right now. If you’ve got relevant company news about technology innovations, helpful information or content your customers might find useful, inspiring or uplifting – share it. Communicate that stuff.

This is the biggest area in which we can lead with communication. Let’s help each other get through this quicker and come out better. Let’s not add to the noise with irrelevant, inauthentic or self-promotional chatter.

Think about other stakeholders than your employees, customers and partners.

What about investors, prospective employees, vendors, analysts and media members? How can you communicate with these groups in meaningful ways right now?

Move faster. 

No one has time for that pretty PowerPoint presentation. Just make a straightforward Google Doc and encourage everyone to jump in with thoughts. Don’t schedule that video conference for a week from this Thursday, as the news landscape may have profoundly shifted by then. Just pick up the phone.

Think about how you can help others in the business adjust.

Maybe the engineering team isn’t used to doing their stand-ups via Zoom. If so, send them bullet points on how best to communicate via video.  Pay special attention to managers. Give them talking points, and encourage them to ramp up communication with their teams as the pandemic endures.

Take time to listen.

Consider how your communications are resonating (or not). Listen to your audiences, adjust to their feedback, and start again.

I know it’s exhausting right now and you might be asking yourself: Why do I have to do this, again? But we communicators have an obligation to lead. So, let’s get moving and keep it going.

Star Million Baker is the owner of INK Communications.

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