Internal Coronavirus Communications: The Path Forward

By Michael Fox & Tim Streeb

Employees can be a company’s largest and loudest source of advocacy or criticism — a fact that rings true especially during times of crisis.

With new Forrester data indicating that 85 percent of employees trust their employers as a source of information about COVID-19 (more than they trust governments and social media), your organization’s internal communications program moving forward is perhaps more important than ever.

By treating your team members as your top priority and providing consistent, honest coronavirus communications for the duration of the pandemic, you can not only improve employee engagement but also strengthen your brand reputation organically, as employees share their experiences and company developments with their peers, family, friends other stakeholder groups.

As businesses begin to actively consider the process of restarting operations to some degree, there is likely considerable anxiety and trepidation on the part of all parties. Handling communications during this time is potentially one of the most important activities management teams will be responsible for. Consider the following: 

Plan for the long-term: As your employees adjust to our new post-coronavirus-outbreak world, they will continue to need clear, credible and consistent messaging from senior leadership regarding not only day-to-day recovery efforts, but what’s coming over the long-term. See our recent post, “Adapting Crisis Response Plans for the Long-Term during Coronavirus Pandemic,” for advice on developing your COVID-19 communications plan for the remainder of the year. 

Communicate from the top and cascade down: In most organizations, the two groups of employees that hold the most weight and influence are the CEO and direct supervisors. (PR research going back to the 70s has proven employees’ preference for receiving information from their supervisor.)

As you continue to address COVID-19, your CEO’s messaging should outline the company’s recovery vision, including specific actions that will be taken, and directly address what she or he wants employees to know and do.

But don’t stop there. Key direct supervisors also need to be kept informed, and should receive messaging on any future changes, progress or transitions, along with guidance on how and when to communicate with their direct reports in advance of any changes taking place. That way, they can reinforce the messages from the CEO and also be empowered to engage in one-on-one conversations with team members, who will invariably come to them with questions and concerns.

Because COVID-19 recovery may take time, don’t neglect to provide employees with regular updates on your efforts and progress. You employees want and need a steady flow of information. Remember that people under stress don’t always process information well, so if the information is critical, deliver it multiple times across channels.

Clarity is king: Make sure your internal coronavirus communications are as clear and factual as possible. Ambiguity leaves employees anxious and more vulnerable to rumors and fake news.

If there are significant changes to your business as a result of COVID-19, it will be critical for employees to know what they are, who they should contact, and how, for specific needs or questions. Make sure it’s easy for employees to find resources on topics such as:

  • Medical plan coverage, including COVID-19 testing coverage
  • Employee assistance programs and/or other emotional wellbeing programs
  • New/updated personal safety/sanitation procedures
  • Updated work-from-home policies
  • Changes to your current corporate travel policy
  • New/improved technology resources including alternatives to in-person meetings (video conferences, online meetings, etc.)

Remain visible (even if virtually!): In times of dramatic change, there’s no substitute for senior leadership visibility in minimizing negative speculation and fostering positive attitudes. If continued social distancing or travel limitations prevent senior leadership from being in person physically, increase your use of digital tools to do so virtually.

Facilitate dialogue and encourage feedback: To quell employee rumors and ongoing uncertainty, two-way dialogue with your employees is critical. Every leader has blind spots — it’s impossible to know every aspect of every role at your company — and active listening can help you course-correct and mitigate additional impact.

Means by which to actively listen and facilitate dialogue range from intranets and one-on-one conversations to anonymous surveys, focus groups or virtual suggestion boxes. Front line managers are also a critical feedback chain. Actively solicit their input to hear what is they are seeing and hearing in the trenches.

Remember that employees are not a monolithic group — they will respond and react in different ways, have different concerns and motivations. Activate your HR team as a strategic resource and reliable outlet for team members. Determine what your stakeholders think about your recovery plan and identify and address their top questions and concerns.

Celebrate the good stuff: Despite more uncertainty ahead, you should recognize and celebrate your team’s group and individual accomplishments, however small. Celebrating achievements at work is an important part of the productivity cycle. Without taking a moment to celebrate victories both large and small, negative news and other “noise” can overshadow the progress your organization is making. Focusing on the positives will also facilitate a return to normalcy in the work place.

To successfully execute your business plan, you need employees focused and productive. This can only happen if they are comfortable and confident in executing their roles. The COVID-19 pandemic has generated fear and uncertainty, and attacked many of the pillars of basic existence that we have come to take for granted. Clear, consistent and credible internal coronavirus communications from company leaders will help restore that comfort and confidence and enable everyone to move forward productively into the “new normal” that lies ahead.

If you have additional questions about how to communicate effectively during this pandemic — to both internal and external audiences — just reach out.