coronavirus-internal-comms

Communicating COVID-19 to Your Employees

Coronavirus gives employee communicators a sobering refresher on crisis management best practices.

Internal communications professionals know “it” is inevitable at some point. Your Spidey senses feel “it.” You know “it” usually comes at the worst time, and “it” is never simple to unpack for employees. I’m talking about an all-consuming crisis that impacts your company and triggers an urgent employee communications plan. 

Most large companies have pretty robust business continuity plans. They get out in front of emerging crises before they directly impact their organizations—especially public health concerns like the coronavirus pandemic.

Ninety-two percent of companies have or will send communications to employees on their operations plans as the coronavirus crisis deepens, according to a recent Business Group on Health survey. As of March 16, close to 40 states have declared states of emergency. That precipitates businesses to communicate how guidance from government agencies like the CDC and state health departments impact the workplace.

Chances are, if you are an employee communicator, you’re knee-deep in business continuity infectious disease planning calls with a cross-departmental cadre of leaders. The room is packed with leaders from Legal, Security, HR, Operations, and Finance to stay ahead of this international health pandemic.

 Depending on the industry you work in, you’ve most likely communicated guidance and on-going updates for employees based on their job roles and responsibilities. In the coming weeks (and possibly months) as you keep your head above water managing these communications, here are a handful of best practices to stay top of mind. 


Don’t jeopardize accuracy for efficiency.

Often leaders want to get ahead of issues like COVID-19 with blanket communications. In these situations, internal and external brand reputation is paramount. Fast-moving health issues can often mean information communicated last week is already outdated. 

Make sure a cohesive business continuity plan for infectious disease that directs your overall communication planning and strategy. It would help if you based your comms plan on levels of severity. That way, you’ve prepared messages around how your core business activities will maintain for several weeks or months with limited staff. According to the Candian Manufacturers & Exporters Association, a typical pandemic flu plan should scope out the impact of 25-30% of the general workforce for a period of 1 to 3 weeks.

According to the Business Continuity Planners Association, severe waves of pandemic flu plans should account for more than 50% of employee absenteeism. How will you communicate guidance if the crisis worsens? Does the planning group have policies in place if a pandemic lasts for months? 

Advocate for the employee experience with regular updates and follow-through.

When implementing tactics that make up a crisis communications plan, you must account for the employee experience. Make sure the planning teams involved put themselves in their employees’ shoes. Create an accompanying human interest story that introduces your business continuity team and what they do to ensure the security of the company. Often, just knowing that a team of professionals within your organization is focused on business continuity and employee safety helps lessen anxiety during a crisis. 

Unpack policies with real-world, relatable examples. A realistic anecdotal model provides a framework for employees. Get out of digital comms and post info sheets and posters throughout the company’s operations.

Connect crisis messaging and specific instructions to your company’s mission, vision, and values. Check the tone of your crisis communications against other corporate messages, they should align. 

Often at-will work policies are not easy to underscore when healthy front-line employees must report to work or interact with the public.

Commit to how often you’ll report updates, such as every two days or at the end of each day. Making that commitment will provide some comfort for employees who want updates. You don’t have to distribute these updates through email. In-person team meetings with front-line employees may be more impactful compared to email updates.

The business continuity team should include communicators in regular check-ins. Your “eyes and ears on the ground” key communicators should report employee feedback on your policies and comms.

Ensure on-going communications are cascaded down appropriately and are locally specific. 

There’s no more critical time to ensure you’re in touch with local employees than during a crisis. How COVID-19 is handled in Topeka is much different than how it’s dealt with within New York City. That’s a simplistic example, but plan for complexity since not every area of your operation will have the same impact.

I’ve had experience with communicating crises to union versus non-union employees. In those cases, employer policies around PTO and comp time varied, and Legal had to ensure guidance applied to these specific employment agreements.

You know employees respond to direct communications from their supervisors. When possible, ensure updates come from local leadership. Those pieces are more meaningful than a message from a distant leader from HQ that has never met satellite employees. 

When possible, ask for feedback from local leadership. That way you have a sense of what messages resonated best with employees. Your communications should also build a reporting culture where employees aren’t scared to speak up if they’re ill.

Also, pandemic communications can encompass interim business unit productivity measures. Should performance measures be suspended when healthy employees are covering for the sick? If the virus impacts the markets, how will sales targets and other business success indicators adjust?

Provide reference materials, resources, and authoritative company contacts who can offer guidance.

Build a resource page on your intranet that holds the latest updates and company communications with HR/Employee Relations contacts. 

Companies that have successfully navigated through a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic will often want to move on. However, it’s essential to evaluate how your crisis communications planning worked.

Can you measure the effectiveness of your communications? Did employees stay informed? Did unexpected, but related issues arise for employees in specific areas of your operations? Make sure you document your leadership debrief, evaluate tactics, and identify gaps that can be practiced next time. 


When you recover from communicating about coronavirus or any other crisis on your plate, contact me at karine@cerkl.com.

For more of our internal communications resources and tips, check out the Cerkl blog.

I'm a strategic business partner who is passionate about supporting clients' internal communications programs in order to personalize the employee experience and give life to a brand's message through storytelling.

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