Wondering which way to jump with your Covid-19 communications?
Posted on 23rd March 2020
Decision makers dealing with the current situation and developing Covid-19 communications are in a difficult position.
Emergencies and crises come in all shapes and sizes. What they all have in common is that we can’t anticipate and plan for them in detail – otherwise they would already be part of our contingency plans.
If you are feeling unclear about your role, responsibilities and how to communicate in these uncertain times here are my top seven pieces of advice, which will apply to any size or type of business or organisation.
They are based on over 30 years of communications experience in the public, private and charity sectors.
1. Don’t wait to have all the information
As a business owner or organisational leader, you will normally have all the relevant information at your fingertips before you make an important decision.
However, emergencies and crises evolve very quickly, so your first action is to accept that your information isn’t concrete.
Your natural instinct to wait for more information will work against you, so you need to be agile. Keep revisiting the situation and be prepared to revise what you’re doing, when new information becomes available.
You can’t do everything and know everything, so empower others to collect and assess new information. Create an ‘action board’ of areas where you will need to continually review and update information and your responses. However, be wary or unconfirmed reports and rumours. Only use information from reliable sources.
2. Keep an eye on the clock
Time will fly past as you respond to a fast-changing information. However, for people affected by the decisions you make, the clock will be ticking very slowly. If you don’t update your stakeholders (and especially customers, service users, and employees) regularly, they will start to fill in the gaps themselves, and this will work against you.
It’s understandable that you will want to provide fully accurate and reliable information, but in practice you can’t. Your responsibility in these circumstances is to answer one important question for the people who are important to your success: ‘How does this affect me?’
Your job is to address their concerns and to manage their expectations.
The best way to keep on top of this requirement is to create a timetable that will allow you to provide regular updates. To do this, you will need to be aware of people’s needs. For example, if your employees work in shifts, you should time your updates for when they arrive and leave.
Two updates per day isn’t unreasonable but bear in mind that you will need to carefully plan what you say, so leave at least an hour beforehand to make sure to tone and content is appropriate. You don’t have to do this alone; let someone draft the messages for you.
To make your life easier, give an undertaking that you will answer specific questions at every update – if there’s nothing new to say, you can confirm that the situation is unchanged. You can also invite people to ask questions.
Give your updates a title, number and date, so that people can keep track of the most up to date information.
3. Be transparent
It’s an uncomfortable situation when you don’t know the answers to important questions. The temptation to hold back is significant but should be resisted.
If you have discovered that some parts of your operation are seriously exposed, don’t try to hide it. People will already be asking themselves the same questions and will appreciate your honesty. If you give incomplete or misleading information or withhold important details, you will have to face the consequences later.
4. Show empathy
While you might have to be very dispassionate about the decisions you are taking, you also need to reassure people that you understand their concerns.
However, don’t be tempted to give reassurances without substance or make commitments that can’t be met.
For example, don’t tell your employees that there won’t be any redundancies due to the current situation when, in fact, if it goes on for months rather than weeks this might be inevitable.
Instead, make smaller but realistic undertakings and commitments. Tell your employees that, unless you are told to shut down, everyone can continue to come to work and be paid as normal for the coming days or weeks.
Explain that you are looking carefully at the latest guidance and will let them know how they will be affected if, in fact, you have to shut down.
5. Don’t try to do everything
Many organisations will be providing regular updates of their own. Rather than spending time copying and pasting their information into your own updates, simply direct people to the latest information that is relevant to your area of operation.
This will give them some sense of control and you can be confident that they are receiving valid and accurate information rather than rumours.
Set up a special web page, WhatsApp group or private Facebook page for example, to share links and feeds.
6. Keep records
You will be making a lot of decisions quickly. When things calm down, you will need to explain how you managed the situation, and it can be difficult to remember when and why certain decisions were made.
If you have sensibly let go of your ‘control and command’ approach, you will also need to know when, how and why others made their decisions and recommendations.
Give it some structure with a template so that you can see exactly when new information is received, who assessed it, what risks were identified and what actions were taken.
Make it clear that you aren’t interested in blaming anyone if things don’t turn out as you would hope. This is so that you can all learn and move on.
7. Look to the future
Although the current situation is all-consuming, there will be a time when we can look back on what we did and how we responded.
Make sure that you don’t lose track of what you want to be proud about when this is all over.
Make sure that you tell people what your longer-term goals are and how you intend to achieve them.
This will allow you to move on to the recovery phase of your communications much more quickly. More about that another time.
I hope this advice is helpful. Please do get in touch if you have any questions.
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