As coronavirus spreads, how should employers respond?

The virus continues its grim march around the world, but panic is not in anyone’s interest. Here’s how communicators should respond.

How should employers address concerns swirling around the seemingly inexorable spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus?

How much information is too much? What do we tell employees? Should everyone still come into the office?

Communication around an emerging global pandemic is key to calm fears. There is most certainly a wrong way to go about it (“Everybody panic!”). Let’s review current facts, crisis communication basics as well as level-headed tips for mitigating coronavirus-specific concerns.

Where we are now

Worldwide infections have risen to nearly 83,000, but the majority of those (more than 78,600) are in China. There are 60 confirmed cases of U.S. citizens and 10 in Canada. As for the rest of our hemisphere, Brazil has reported Latin America’s first (and only) confirmed coronavirus case thus far. And yes, it continues to spread, and the virus poses a serious concern for employers in every industry.

However, the mortality rate for Covid-19 appears to be just about 2%. That’s higher than the flu (less than 1% mortality rate), but much lower than SARS’ 10% death rate, for instance.

Comms advice and guidance

Wojtek Dabrowski, managing partner of Toronto-based Provident Communications, says this is a crucial time for companies to communicate more, not less, and to do so with clarity and consistency.

“In an outbreak like this one, companies become a key source of timely, trusted and actionable information for their employees,” he says. “That’s why it’s critically important that organizations provide regular updates focused not only on the business impact of the outbreak—travel restrictions, event cancellations and so on—but also on the personal health and safety impacts as well.”

Of course, the business show must go on, but this is an opportunity for company leaders to prove that they genuinely prioritize people over projects and profits.

“Companies also have to remember that their teams are nervous about what the outbreak will do in terms of derailing key goals and initiatives that might be in progress,” Dabrowki says. “For example, it’s more than disheartening to have a major project derailed because of travel restrictions, so leaders have to reassure employees that health and safety are the top priority and that everything else is secondary.”

Nick Lanyi, a crisis communication expert and affiliate consultant with Ragan Consulting Group, agrees that this is a vital time for organizations to act with empathy and humanity—without neglecting basic health instructions.

“Part of it is common sense,” he says. “Organizations need to make clear that they value employee health and safety. They need to act now to provide information and resources about what people can do to stay healthy and who they should speak to if they have questions. And they should proactively develop communication materials to respond to possible crisis scenarios that could occur (e.g., an employee contracts the virus).”

A panic-inducing situation such as this presents an opportunity for a communicator to be a calm, reassuring voice of reason. Steadying the ship amid turbulent times can even help you earn a seat at the decision-making table, according to crisis communication expert Gerard Braud. He suggests five steps for mitigating coronavirus crisis effects:

  • Conduct a vulnerability assessment.
  • Determine if your crisis plan needs any updates, such as handling social media queries about coronavirus’ impact on your business.
  • Craft pre-written news release statements and determine how you’ll respond if an employee falls ill.
  • Conduct coronavirus-specific media training with your spokespeople.
  • Hold a crisis communication drill scenario to ensure comms, HR, legal, execs, PR and marketing are all aligned and in sync on messaging—and prepared for potential fallout.

Where to start

Instead of ignoring this crisis and hoping for it to go away, take a proactive approach. Encourage executives to provide flexible work accommodations. Give your employees current, accurate information on the disease’s spread, and provide clear-headed instructions on how to stay safe. The WHO covers everything you need to know about coronavirus protection here, and the CDC offers a wealth of preventive tips and related resources as well. There are several coronavirus maps available, and there’s no shortage of valid news sources (and myth-busting links) you can share with employees. How you do so and on which platforms is up to you. Just keep the communication coming on channels that your employees prefer.

Communicate openly, but be judicious about the language you use amid this global crisis. Even if you’re in the “This is all overblown; it’ll be over soon” camp, keep in mind that none of this is a laughing matter. It’s not a time for jokes nor for mindlessly spreading false rumors.

Dabrowski exhorts business leaders to “communicate carefully” in coming weeks and months: “Above all else, companies have to remember that their employees are regular people—they’re nervous about what’s happening, overloaded with information, hearing scary rumors and worried about their families and their own safety. That’s why it’s crucial to communicate transparently and regularly, and only using information that has been verified as factually accurate.”

As Dabrowski says, “The worst thing an employer can do in a situation like this is overreact or spread inaccurate information that scares people.”


One Response to “As coronavirus spreads, how should employers respond?”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    The most important communications from PR may be to management.

    .1. What PR perils are foreseeable?

    .2. What PR protections should we consider?

    In PR counseling of management, attention should focus on the corporate asset that management cares about most: the employees. They may for good reason be called “associates” or some other such name that recognizes their importance and the reality that they, stockholders and management people are members of the corporate family threatened by Covid-19.

    HEALTH OF EMPLOYEES is a huge management concern in the Covid-19 crisis, so management communications will relate (quite possibly after you write) what your medical team and management are doing to try protecting employee health—and what employees can do.

    It could be a PR mistake for management to try giving medical advice because (a) public health experts know better what to advise, and (b) almost any health advice offered by management could months from now be characterized by lawyers as not enough or not accurate enough.

    Fortunately a wealth of excellent medical advice can be communicated by management from federal and local government experts, local hospitals and universities, medical societies and trusted sources like American Medical Association, American Lung Association and other health-protection groups.
    Make ler tht th information you are passing along is from them, not the company.

    Communicating expert heath hints serves to protect employee heath and to increase employee awareness of management’s intense interest in employee health.

    EMPLOYEE MORALE can be threatened by company policy about not being stationed near symptomatic employees A PR-protection caution is that it could be wise for management (including HR and the general counsel) to consider what company policy should be about time off. Should employees who show symptoms be sent to a nurse’s office or the local hospital? Will this count as sick time? Employee protection that’s either too skimpy or too generous can turn into a problem for employee heath and for the peril of being sued.

    EMPLOYEE TENURE can be threatened if the tough economy and sharply reduced orders from abroad causes a hefty proportion of employees to have no work and as a result perhaps no job. OR if sales are sharply curtailed because of inability to get parts from China and other places where production is being curtailed badly. OR if we’re only a tiny company but if the big company on which we depend is hit hard, what can we do?

    Much better than management saying “how extremely sorry we are” over layoffs: making clear now—ahead of time—how hard and almost desperately management is working to AVOID layoffs that could be made necessary by what management is trying night and day to avoid. If they know you tried and tried, laid ff employees may be less likely to blame you for the layoffs.

    PR can’t tell top management what to do. But PR can be almost a blessing to top management if PR expertly outlines what PR considerations there are, what PR-related questions management may face, and what protective answers management may consider.

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