How brand managers should address COVID-19

How can communicators help their organizations respond to the global health crisis? This agency leader shares his insights.

Coronavirus concept. Note COVID-19, Protective medical mask and pill capsules for treatment coronavirus. Novel corona virus outbreak. Epidemic from Wuhan, China. Coronavirus drugs on wooden table.

Editor’s note: This article is a re-run as part of our countdown of top stories from the past year.

With the news changing by the hour (or even the minute) the COVID-19 virus outbreak has companies scrambling to prepare communications strategies.

Regardless of whether the outbreak becomes a full-blown pandemic, taking appropriate operational and communications steps now will help organizational strength and stability.

Here are five tips to proactively communicate and respond to requests for information related to COVID-19:

1. Communicate early, often and consistently.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has made it clear that it is a question of when, not if, local outbreaks of the coronavirus will occur in the U.S., and the U.S. State Department has warned travel restrictions could be put in place with little or no advance notice.

In times of uncertainty, employees look for timely information from their employers about how the organization expects to be affected, and how it will respond. Coordinated and consistent communication is crucial.

This is especially important given that employees are the connection to other relevant audiences including customers, investors, supply chain partners, local communities and more.

As companies openly encourage sick employees to stay home, they must also review work-from-home and sick-leave policies. Keep in mind that employees might need to stay to care for affected family members or cope with childcare issues if schools or daycares close.

Personnel afraid of losing pay or opportunities are more likely to risk coming to work even if they feel ill or have been exposed to the virus. Be sure all staff are aware of policy changes and know the company will follow public health advisories.

2. Sound the alarm, but don’t be an alarmist.

Companies should put personnel first in their communications, displaying an appropriate level of concern, while also working to implement preventative measures. Make it clear that if employees are sick—especially with symptoms of respiratory illness such as cough, shortness of breath or fever—they should stay home and see a doctor.

Because experts believe the COVID-19 virus is transmitted through human contact, public health officials recommend reducing unnecessary face-to-face meetings. Many companies are restricting international travel, particularly to areas where the coronavirus is prevalent.

Make sure staff booking travel check the CDC’s Travel Health Notices for up-to-date information.

3. Find and use credible sources.

The World Health Organization and CDC are continuously providing information on the status of the outbreak, as well as guidance on how to protect against the virus and identify its symptoms.

These organizations have additional resources available as well, including Q&As and myth-dispelling materials. Provide employees with reliable information to answer specific questions and refer to these sources so everyone can educate themselves and stay informed.

4. Revisit your business continuity plan.

IT, HR and Facilities Management teams are likely to need help appropriately communicating contingency plans to staff. Communications teams should understand the processes that will be implemented in various crisis scenarios, including a business closing down due to sickness, the inability to obtain materials from suppliers or other disruptions.

Remind employees of proper hand hygiene, along with cough and sneeze etiquette. Place 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer units near workplace entrances, in conference and break rooms, and other high-traffic areas to serve as visual reminders about the need for protection.

Sanitizing wipes and tissues should be readily available and quickly restocked. Encourage staff to wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds several times each day.

Companies that operate an employee cafeteria should also review hygiene and food safety procedures.

5. Develop a pandemic scenario.

Review your crisis communications plan to be sure you have a scenario that applies to the COVID-19 virus, and check to make sure it is aligned with your business continuity plan.

Though many crisis plans separate physical plant accessibility and reputation scenarios, this situation can affect both. It is always a best practice to stage a crisis simulation on a regular basis. A tabletop exercise specifically devoted to the threats associated with the COVID-19 crisis should be planned sooner rather than later.

How well your company prepares and responds will be judged by employees, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. When lives and livelihoods are at stake, being well prepared, thoughtful and resilient will enhance your corporate reputation long after the COVID-19 virus is controlled.

Rick French is chairman & CEO of French/West/Vaughan.


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