Why and how communicators must address the coronavirus outbreak

Internal messaging should inform employees and outline steps to keep them healthy. Externally, companies can help quash misinformation and actively support health organizations’ efforts.

How to communicate about coronavirus

As the coronavirus spreads, health care organizations worldwide are working hard to treat patients, learn about the virus and disseminate accurate information.

Those last two are also crucial for corporate communicators and PR pros.

The global health emergency has disrupted operations of travel industry companies and businesses with international operations. It has affected higher education institutions that enroll Chinese students.

Many U.S. businesses, including Apple and Starbucks, have closed their outlets in China. Airlines have suspended flights to and from China. Passengers returning from China who may have been exposed to the virus are being tested. Those with signs of infection or exposure to the virus are being quarantined.

All the while, fear and misinformation have spread on social media. At the forefront of distributing information to the public and employees are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health organizations along with corporate communications professionals. Domestic organizations that now seem far removed from coronavirus may soon find themselves communicating health care and travel information.

“Even if companies don’t think they’re directly affected by coronavirus, the disease making national headlines is probably on their employees’ minds,” Rum Ekhtiar, founder and partner of Rum & Co, writes in PR Daily. “Business travelers, commuters and those who work in close quarters may have heightened concerns about their safety.”

Basics of corporate response to the coronavirus threat:

  • Consider making travel optional.
  • Increase employee access to sanitizing and antibacterial cleaning products.
  • Cite only reliable sources in company communications.
  • Inform employees about the level of risk as the epidemic spreads.

PR executives surveyed by Campaign emphasize the need for frequent, transparent and accurate communications. Keep the messages simple and factual to avoid any unnecessary panic, and reference only credible information from government or health organizations.

They also say:

  • Be informed and ready to act. Continually monitor news outlets, and regularly engage with internal and external stakeholders to stay atop the situation so you can act swiftly. Assemble a preliminary crisis plan based on recommendations of public health organizations in case the disease reaches any part of your organization.
  • Emphasize employee safety. Prioritize employee safety. Keep tabs on employee travel plans. Consider allowing remote or telecommuting work arrangements.
  • Boost CSR. Increase corporate social responsibility activities by contributing to social causes. Some companies have donated millions of dollars to the Red Cross working in China.
  • Counter misinformation and fake news. “We are in an era of information overload and fake news, which makes it all the more important for companies to position themselves as a credible source of information that their staff can rely on,” said Antoine Calendrier, head of reputation for North Asia at Edelman Asia Pacific.

The coronavirus outbreak brings back memories of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Dallas, says Daniel Keeney, founder and president of DPK Public Relations. Some health care management and communications mistakes committed back then are being repeated.

Drawing on an analysis of the Ebola crisis by Kathleen Lewton, principal with Lewton, Seekins & Trester, Keeney offers these recommendations:

  • Know the facts before you speak. Early in both the Ebola and coronavirus outbreaks, health experts knew very little about the diseases and how they spread. As the coronavirus started spreading, some political leaders issued unrealistically positive public statements. Even now, it’s not known how easily or rapidly the virus spreads, partly because information from China is unreliable. Organizations affected by the handful of coronavirus cases in the U.S. are employing strict measures to prevent spread from the infected patients.
  • Don’t be pressured into releasing information. News outlets’ appetite for information is insatiable. Don’t allow journalists’ complaints about lack of transparency to pressure you into releasing information you’ll later regret. Focus on responding to and correcting inaccurate statements on Twitter and other social media channels rather than worrying about whether a journalist feels slighted.
  • Communicating is crucial but is no substitute for training. Staff members at hospitals admitting the first Ebola patients were not trained in fundamental aspects of Ebola patient care. Since that outbreak, U.S. hospitals have implemented more training in dealing with patients with infectious disease. Businesses, too, must train employees in risk prevention, including frequent and thorough hand washing, which also helps prevent the flu from spreading.

A version of this post first appeared on the Glean.info blog.

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