How are communications strategies shifting in response to the COVID-19 crisis?
“We are working through all of this in real-time,” says Tiffany Guarnaccia, founder and CEO of Kite Hill PR. Her team is shifting its tone and strategy in the face of the crisis and an uncertain future.
“It’s hard to project the longer-term impacts but we’ve already seen immediate impacts in the increase of media consumption,” she says. “We are advising our clients to exercise extra sensitivity to the timing of their news and brainstorming how to adjust, not freeze announcements.”
Guarnaccia stresses the importance of flexibility.
“We are also being agile in our communications as we think about messaging through a new lens and navigate this new reality,” she says. “We’re all in this together.”
Audra Hession, principal and managing director for G&S Business Communications, says, “People are certainly getting inundated with information everywhere, but one thing that we can say from the research that we’ve done is that they are turning to their employers (as well as the internet and social media) to get their information.”
What do employees want to hear from their employers?
“They certainly are eager to hear from their employers about what it is that they’re doing to help keep them safe,” Hession says, “but also to enable them to work remotely and maintain continuity with their own jobs and performance, as well as the state of the business.”
Employees seem pleased with their organizations’ response, she says.
“Most at this point have said they are satisfied with how corporations are responding to the outbreak,” Hession says. “And many say their perceptions of their company would become more positive if they were to share their coronavirus policies to the general public.”
A balancing act
It’s a delicate dance to know how much to share.
“I will say that there really isn’t a lot of hesitation at all for companies to provide information,” Hession says. “Generally employees are feeling good about the transparency of their organizations and what they are communicating, but as this continues to evolve every day … the questions that I think companies are asking is; ‘How much do I share? How often do I share it?’”
In an overzealous attempt to embrace transparency, an employer could pile on to already anxious employees.
Guarnaccia stresses that it is crucial to hit the right tone.
“The right tone is everything,” she says. “Leadership must show empathy and authenticity.”
“Whether it’s internal or external communications, activate your emotional intelligence now more than ever,” she says. “It’s important to convey your help message appropriately and assist stakeholders as needed.”
The cadence of your outreach should be dictated by what kind of organization you are, Hession says.
“They really are eager to hear from those organizations that most impact their lives on a daily basis,” she says. “And that really does center around their career and their stability within their jobs. It revolves around medical information, health and safety information… and it also pertains to what’s happening in their local communities.”
Hession recommends conducting an audit to determine what your audience wants to hear—“putting together some sort of analysis on your different audiences that you’re communicating with and really identifying what’s most important to them.”
“At this point I think we sort of moved beyond ‘what do I need to know now in order to make the best decisions about myself and my family,’” she adds. Communicators should be thinking about the long game and tailoring messages to those needs as part of a long-term strategy.
Transparent to a fault
What about when it is time to share some hard truths about the financial future of your organization?
“Companies that are doing a good job are being transparent,” says Hession, pointing to messages like “We’re all in this together,” which, she says, is “the right thing to do.” When it comes time to make tougher decisions, there’s more that goes into it.
“There’s a lot of other things to think about when you get into announcing whether or not a company has to put someone on furlough, or whether there are layoffs coming,” she says. “First and foremost, you certainly want to be able to communicate that internally before there’s any external communication and there’s certain ways to do that and not.”
Be on every channel
Take advantage of every channel you have to engage employees, Hession says.
Email is the first stop for many organizations, but she also points to group chat platforms like Slack or Microsoft Teams to help remote employees stay organized. One reason for the uptick in use is video chat.
“Prior to this, while a lot of companies used Teams, they may not have used that video conferencing function/video call function,” Hession says. “Very often we’re seeing a lot more companies using that function now.” She says the tool allows employees to find that “human touch” they are missing in their new remote work situations.
She also points to virtual town halls and happy hours as essential to help keep employee morale high.
Some companies are publishing tips and guides on how to use remote work technology, something that Hession highly recommends.
“Companies are doing a good job of putting communication out and tips,” she says “That is something that more and more companies should be doing.”
The case for optimism
There’s room to be hopeful, even in the face of a historic crisis.
“What I’m seeing that makes me really happy is the level of collaboration across teams, across groups internally and externally,” says Hession. “People are very resilient—and there’s certainly a lot of anxiety and fear right now—but I am also seeing people band together.”
Guarnaccia agrees that the sense of everyone working together offers hope.
“I’ve found it comforting to see how my team has come together during this unprecedented situation,” she says. “Dynamic times call for shifting services and a fluid response, and I’ve seen my team activate agility and collaboration not only in their work for our clients, but also in their communications with each other.”
How are you responding to the COVID-19 crisis, both internally and externally? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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