How communicators can maximize vaccine mandate messaging

As companies prepare to comply with the White House’s new measures to control the virus, comms pros should prepare for bumpy months ahead. An expert shares how to excel in this fraught environment.

Editor’s note: We are re-running the top stories of 2021 as part of our year-end countdown.

DeNesha Tellis, CEO of The Tellis Group and a Ragan Consulting Group affiliate consultant specializing in executive and leadership communications, explains the essential role that department managers play in rolling out corporate messaging around the Biden administration’s mandate.

1. Communications teams at companies across the country are developing plans and messaging about the new mandates. What role do department or business unit managers play in spreading the word?

Communications leaders should consider the Biden Administration’s mandate as they would any significant change that occurs inside an organization, and apply the same foundational change management principles and strategies that you typically rely on.

Those would include: ensuring employees understand the change that is occurring, helping them understand the organization’s role and their personal role in compliance, and providing a feedback loop so the organization can continue to address concerns and provide new information as the situation evolves.

Although communications leaders often develop their plans in partnership with the C-Suite, managers are often the best-suited for cascading the message.

“A key to the success of a roll-out such as this, given the magnitude and significance of the initiative, is going to be the manager’s role in supporting their direct reports,” Tellis says. “Business managers have more direct relationships with employees [than members of the communications team] and have ideally built lines of communication and trust. Execution is often more successful when folks in management across the enterprise are included.”

2. What steps should comms leaders take to ensure business managers successfully communicate the mandate to their respective teams?

Comms departments don’t necessarily need to share the entire communication plan with every manager, but they should ensure that managers understand the big picture so they can prepare to speak with, or write to, their employees. At the same time, both comms leaders and business managers need to have clear messaging about the reasons for their employer’s new vaccination or testing program – in this case, the government’s mandate.

“I find that whether employees disagree or agree, or have questions [amidst major change], there’s usually a lot of conversation surrounding the why,” Tellis says.

Providing such a rationale helps people to feel “grounded,” she says. “It helps to manage the uncertainty and difficulty that can come with directives or changes on a large scale.”

3. Employers with vaccine mandates already in place say they are inundated with worker requests for exemption. One often-cited example is the Los Angeles Police Department, where some 2,600 employees are citing religious objections to try to avoid the jab. Given this trend, how can comms leaders support managers on the front lines of these discussions?

“Managers will have difficult conversations when delivering the news,” Tellis says.

“Starting from a place of respect and empathy is where we want to keep the conversation grounded. The answer is always, ‘Our organization respects and values differences in lifestyles, backgrounds and beliefs.’ And when it becomes a question of legality, comms teams should tap into resources such as their HR and legal partners, depending on the structure of your organization.”

4. Carefully scripted messaging morphs as real people have real conversations. How have managers improvised to maximize employee understanding of massive change?

At the height of the pandemic in 2020, the people managing the Environmental Services department of a Colorado hospital needed to explain new protocols for keeping the facility sanitized. Emailing the cleaning crew would not have been an effective way to reach them.

“This is a group not tied to email and digital updates,” Tellis says. “The department’s leaders were able to take tidbits [of corporate messaging] and incorporate it into daily shift change meetings. Every group that came on was getting the most relevant information.”

5. Why do you think the hospital manager’s approach proved to be so successful? What lessons can other communicators derive from her example?

Whereas communications professionals are always in front of a screen, it’s important to remember that many employees are always on the go. It takes an experienced and empowered manager to know how to relate.

“This manager had built a culture of transparency with her team,” Tellis says. “To me that’s the magic – taking the information and meeting people where they are and presenting it where it’s most accessible and most relevant.”

The hospital anecdote provides a universal truth for all communicators – whether they’re communicating the vaccine mandate or some other development down the road.

Says Tellis: “I would encourage comms leader to support their managers in thinking ‘What is the culture we’re going to establish?’ So when there is something urgent, critical, or perceived as negative, there is an opportunity for a constant flow of communication.”

RCG specializes in corporate communications training, consulting and strategic counsel. Schedule a call with Kristin Hart to learn how we can help you improve your manager communications plan. Follow RCG on LinkedIn here.

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