The world is full of communications around COVID-19, the official name for the novel strain of coronavirus that has been labeled a “pandemic.”
From around the world, there are a myriad of public health organizations, medical experts and others providing guidance for event planners, businesses, educational institutions and leisure travelers. The misinformation about COVID-19 and the political rhetoric is traveling just as fast – perhaps faster – than accurate information.
With all the science, medical research and public health expertise surrounding the issue, it’s easy for a strong communications message to be lost in facts, data and jargon. For most companies and organizations, the facts and figures should be secondary to values-based messaging.
It’s important to understand that most of the rhetoric, the madness found in checkout lines at Costco and the cancelled plane flights have much more to do with emotion and fear than health and safety. Though we’re fearful for our health, we also are worried about having a steady supply of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, as well as whether our 401Ks will survive and whether our jobs and industries are in jeopardy.
Communications strategies should recognize these emotions and respond accordingly by finding common ground in shared values. A few easy tips to consider:
- Recognize the concern. Don’t downplay it and don’t ignore it. Start by telling your stakeholders that you share their concerns and that empathy is guiding your decision-making.
- Start with caring. How do your company values intersect with this issue? Are you a company that puts employees first? Do your values shape your response? Will you err on the side of caution in order to protect associates, customers or others? Reminding audiences that you care about them remains a core responsibility for communicators.
- Build a cross-functional team. Shape your communications strategy in close collaboration with operations, logistics, human resources and legal departments, and other subject matter experts within your organization. This issue is not simply a PR issue.
- Remember internal audiences. In the rush to reach customers or to stem the tide of lost sales and revenue, companies in crisis often forget about internal stakeholders. Ensure your employees understand what is being done to protect them, whether their jobs are secure, and what your plans for business continuity are in the face of the current crisis.
- Keep it simple. Consider what is “inside baseball” for your business and what is relevant for more public audiences, and plan your communications accordingly. Perhaps audiences don’t need to know the internal details of your training and disinfection protocols. They just want to know that you’ve increased them accordingly. Short, measured bursts of information will go a lot further than a long, multi-paragraph letter that won’t get read.
- Cite health experts, but don’t “act” as a health expert. Some early COVID-19 communications from businesses suggested that they were making independent decisions. Take advantage of information from respected, credible third-party public health experts (Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, for example) in shaping your message. Don’t speak for them and don’t speculate.
- Strike the right tone. This is not the time to say the sky is falling, but it’s also not the time to ignore the fear in the world. Find the balance in your message that shows caring and sincerity, while also providing relevant information and updates.
- Keep people looking at you. Remember that you ultimately control what people know about your brand and business. You might have to share multiple updates, across several platforms, in order to effectively reach your stakeholders. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. Consistency is key.
- Prepare for more to come. This won’t be over quickly, so don’t over-commit too early. A measured response will leave the door open for the unknowns. Keep timelines tight. For example, put a “pause” on travel until the end of the month, with a promise to reevaluate and communicate in the coming weeks, instead of making it “indefinite” or unpredictable.
What else would you add to this list? What other plans should be in place?
Hinda Mitchell is the president of Inspire PR Group. Connect with her on LinkedIn.