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Best Practices as the Coronavirus Outbreak Grows

By Chris Edmonds

Principal, Hubbell Communications

 

While the Pacific Northwest reels from an increase in infections and deaths from coronavirus, businesses are scrambling to implement measures that protect their workforce, clients and customers.

For many of these companies, a core question they will ask this week is what and how to communicate about the likely impacts and necessary precautions arising from this growing pandemic.

While the total number of reported infections — as of today — is still small, the likelihood of a full-blown outbreak is high. This puts pressure on business to engage in a type of precautionary advocacy that is typically the domain of public health officials. It’s what we do when trying to motivate an audience to pay attention to a potential threat and take necessary and reasonable steps to reduce risk.

While many are inexperienced in this realm, relying on a few simple best practices can make communication more effective.

As with any emergency, companies and large organizations should address COVID-19 by first assembling a dedicated rapid response team that brings together human resources, operations and communications.

For businesses with large workforces or who provide services to clients in close quarters — such as nursing homes, hotels, gyms or jails — this is even more critical. This team will create an integrated action and communications plan to minimize workforce disruptions while preventing further spread of the virus.

These rapid response teams should keep in mind best practices when it comes to precautionary advocacy, which typically involves moving an audience from apathy toward positive action. Hand-washing, limiting close contact and cleaning desks and other surfaces all fall into this category. According to most social science, these initiatives are most effective when they are simple, short and frequently repeated. Long emails or 30-minute meetings are less effective at increasing desired behavior than signs posted on doors and regular, short email action alerts.

For information-hungry audiences, consider a mock Q&A session to develop core messaging by putting management in the shoes of each impacted stakeholder group. If supply chains are impacted, customers will want to know how delivery schedules are likely to be impacted.

It is likewise reasonable to assume that employees will have concerns about workplace health and how they should approach everything from school closures to a possible quarantine. And the public will have a general expectation to know how your organization is exhibiting leadership to ensure public health and safety.

With growing awareness of the outbreak, employees and customers will look for answers and clear instructions on how best to move forward in the near term. Organization leadership must have confidence in the team and a clear understanding of the steps it is taking to address and mitigate threats and disruptions.

These steps must be communicated broadly to an audience of employees and customers that have varying degrees of interaction within the organization, as well as different needs and priorities.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to communicating in this environment, as challenges are unique to each individual organization. From global manufacturers to local utilities, small businesses and public agencies, each organization needs to conduct a comprehensive audit of stakeholder audiences and develop a set of tools designed specifically to meet the needs of each group.

At the same time, these communications must be designed to raise awareness and educate without causing unnecessary panic or disruption to business operations. Relying on language used by the Centers for Disease Control is a safe place to go for companies that don’t have resources or expertise to develop their own messaging.

Short-term investments in health and safety such as ramping up industrial cleaning processes, expanding access to hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes and empowering employees to prevent the spread of the coronavirus will have significant impact on maintaining workplace trust, avoiding disruptions and protecting the bottom line during this vulnerable time.

Organizations that take these steps are also contributing to a healthier and more resilient community, protecting their image and creating crisis response procedures that will prove useful in the years to come.

Chris Edmonds is a principal at Hubbell Communications, where he provides crisis and risk communications consulting to organizations ranging from public agencies to Fortune 500 companies.

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