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Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

By Jeffrey Davis, APR

With the coronavirus (COVID-19) elevated to global pandemic status, the phase of precautionary wait-and-see measures has passed, including for your communications strategy.

Particularly for organizations on the front lines – from seniors housing to tourism to major conferences – how and when you connect about the outbreak is imperative to fostering reassurance and trust.

A public health crisis doesn’t have to send you into a messaging tailspin. Here are rapid response tips on how to prepare:

Employees First
Focus first on internal communications to emphasize safety and share the policies and actions your company is actively taking.

Think beyond a single all-staff email that may go unread and opt for over-communication. Coordinate with HR to use all the available avenues like signs in common areas, social media, infographics and videos.

At our Baltimore office the management team has sent a reassuring visual message with small actions like doubled soap products in the restrooms and wipes and sanitizing cleaner stations in the common areas.

Employees need to know if/how you are encouraging a change in routines such as using technology to decrease unnecessary human contact. Let people know if you endorse work-from-home to prevent contamination and if you have any updated sick leave policies.

Now is also an OK time to highlight how you are helping any coronavirus response efforts, financially or otherwise, and to encourage other companies to follow suit.

Consider the Source
Skip the politics and rhetoric by going straight to trusted institutions, staffed with expert immunologists and doctors, as sources for facts and recommendations.

At the top of the list are the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the World Health Organization.

Remember to keep the tone of your communications strong but temperate, promoting awareness and not panic.

Consult Your Crisis Communications Plan
This is the moment to put your crisis PR plan into motion.

Begin with the crisis communications basics: identification of team members; assignment of tasks; updates to template statements; and verification of current contact information including access to social media/passwords.

Next, look at the possible scenarios specific to your organization and plan accordingly. These could include leadership or employees diagnosed with COVID-19; travel policies and restrictions; impact on production or delivery of products; and questions about executive level decision-making which could be called into question.

Industry organizations are helping members with communications, so take advantage of their expertise.

For example, the U.S. Travel Association posted a holding statement, a set of talking points and a social media guide with sample posts and images specific to coronavirus. One of U.S. Travel’s messages: “The challenge in moments of public health concern is to react properly to the situation, but to not overreact.”

If you delayed or canceled an event you will need to announce the decision quickly. Even more important: if you elected to proceed with an event your messaging is extremely important as the reasoning behind the decision will receive extra attention and scrutiny.

Prepare but Preserve Your Narrative
One of your employees, a family member, or neighboring company could become infected or impacted. If word gets out and connects you in any way to the outbreak you must be prepared for questions – both internal and external – about policies you have in place and the steps you took. You need to have an answer.

Weave into your messaging how you prepared for and came out strong after SARS, Ebola, H1N1 and similar outbreaks in past years. This demonstrates your preparedness and confidence in weathering another outbreak.

At the same time, don’t allow COVID-19 to take over your narrative. Be proactive and ready to answer questions but remember you have broader organizational messages to deliver. Make sure this new topic is part of your ongoing spokesperson prep and is included in your media training exercises.

If you need assistance in messaging, crisis communications planning or getting the word out we are ready to help.

Jeffrey Davis is managing partner with Van Eperen, a Board Member of PRSA Maryland, and  Baltimore editor of Capitol Communicator.

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