An event like the COVID-19 pandemic requires public relations and communications professionals, and the business leaders they work with, to be at the top of their game. Which means they need a plan. This situation is too big to wing it. Presented below is a template for creating your COVID-19 crisis communications plan.
Create a task force
- Bring together leaders from across your company to identify and prioritize issues, with all major functions and regions represented
- In larger companies the senior communications leader should usually head up this effort
- In smaller companies the CEO should lead
- Task force team should establish strategic imperatives, communication protocols and a meeting rhythm
Participants will likely include a leader from:
- Human resources
- Sales and customer service
Determine command and decision-making structure
- Who must be involved in all decisions? Who is optional, but helpful?
- Who is the ultimate authority for key decisions? What is a key decision?
- Who is the authority for all other decisions
Prioritize issues of greatest urgency
The top priority is ensuring the safety of employees, customers, vendors and other stakeholders
- Look to guidance from public health experts – such as the CDC and WHO – on what to do and what not to do. Follow CDC recommendations for businesses.
Immediate decisions could include:
- What do we do to keep our employees safe?
- Which customers are most likely to be significantly affected by the pandemic? What can we do to help them?
- Which customers are likely to leave because of this crisis? Why and what can we proactively do to prevent this?
- Should we cancel, postpone or reschedule events?
- Should we use videoconferencing or conference calls instead of in-person customer, employee or vendor meetings?
- How do we determine whether employees should travel for business?
- How do we handle internal meetings?
- When do we require employees to work remotely? Does it apply to all employees? If not, which ones?
- How will we ensure that employees who work remotely have the tools required to do their job? How will we help remote teams work productively together?
- How will we support employees if their children are kept home from school?
Key areas for the team to deal with:
Business continuity: what must be done to ensure the business survives
- Forecast possible scenarios and possible responses:
- Lose major customer
- Lose significant number of customers
- Employee tests positive
- Several employees test positive at a certain location
- Several employees test positive across the company
- An employee is hospitalized from the virus
- An employee dies from the virus
- Anytime an employee tests positive, tell the employees with whom the infected employees has been in contact that they have been exposed to the virus.
- But don’t reveal the infected employee’s name. Always be proactive about protecting employee privacy and confidentiality
- The CDC has four risk categories for individuals. It might be helpful to share this information with employees, and they may be reassured to learn that they are not at risk.
- Let customers know what steps you have taken to protect them from exposure to the virus
- Let customers know what the company has done to assure that their business needs will continue to be met during the crisis
- Determine how to discover and respond to customer pain points during the crisis
- Consider providing an FAQ document with business questions your customers may ask and/or setting up a hotline
- Stay in regular touch with customers – share all updates; connect with them at least weekly, even to say that “all is clear”
- Focus on empathy rather than trying to create selling opportunities
- Decide what to do if an employee displays coronavirus symptoms
- Educate employees about how the virus is spread and what they can do to protect themselves and others around them
- Determine remote working protocols
- Who should work remotely and when?
- How will they work remotely? What tools/technology needed? What are reporting protocols? What is manager’s role?
- Beware of bias or discrimination in deciding who works remotely
- Determine how to help employees be productive when working remotely
- See WSJ coronavirus special section: “How to work from home,” page 22
- Determine meeting and travel protocols
- When meet in person versus by videoconference or conference call?
- When will employees travel on business? When not travel?
- Follow CDC recommendations for business travel
- Consult WHO travel guidelines for COVID-19
- Also see WSJ coronavirus special section: “How to travel during the coronavirus pandemic,” page 15, and “What employers can and can’t do,” page 19
- Office cleaning protocols
- Determine sick leave policies
- Do you need to revise your paid sick leave policy?
- See WSJ coronavirus special section: “Re-evaluating sick time policies,” page 21
- Do you need to revise your paid sick leave policy?
- See this crisis as an opportunity to enhance relationships with your local communities. Some ideas include:
- Providing resources such as cleaning supplies or food for those in quarantine
- Providing transparency about what is happening within the company rather than remaining silent
- Providing information to local media to help calm communities down
Look for opportunities to do something extraordinary
Once top priority safety issues are decided, think about how your response to this crisis can enhance your company’s reputation with employees, customers, vendors, government officials, shareholders, centers of influence, the general public, etc.
- Think about how this crisis will affect your industry specifically and how your response can make a difference. For example:
- A company that provides group collaboration software could provide the service at no cost or at a discount
- A financial services company could provide extra staff at drive-up windows so that customers don’t have to come inside the branch and aren’t delayed by long lines at the drive up
Develop a process to deal with changing situations
- First, decide what actions to take based on what is known today
- Then, create a system for identifying and responding to changing situations. This system should include:
- How will we monitor changes?
- Be sure to monitor communications updates from your industry’s leading associations, as well as public health organizations
- What are the criteria for deciding the importance of changes?
- Who will be notified about significant changes?
- Who will craft the response plan and communications?
- Who will approve the response?
- How do we ensure all of this happens quickly?
- How will we monitor changes?
- The output of this exercise is not necessarily a list of actions, but a detailed process for how new developments will be identified and incorporated into the existing plan
- Keep in mind that disinformation travels as fast or faster than accurate information
- Your organization should seek advice from scientific and medical officials with experience in epidemiology, such as those in the WHO and the CDC.
- The WHO is publishing daily bulletins on the status of the virus.
- It has developed instructions for dealing with the virus, and has produced a document on COVID-19 myths. The organization’s Q&A on COVID-19 is also very helpful.
Prepare the communications engine
- Create templates for common types of content that can be created as needed.
- Press releases
- Social media posts
- Newsletter stories
- Talking points
- Set up expedited legal vetting process
- Work with digital teams to decide how to convey content through company’s owned channels, such as website, blogs, social media channels, newsletters, etc.
Prepare for media inquiries
- Prepare spokespeople – from CEO to the receptionist – with media training and concise answers that can be given without addition approvals or escalation paths.
- Only specific, appointed people from your company’s coronavirus task force should be communicating about the company’s situation with employees and external audiences (media, investors, customers, suppliers, local government, etc.).
- Keep in mind that this is likely not the best time to release company news about new products, etc. Media outlets are devoting their limited resources to covering the coronavirus story.
- Most companies will not want to comment on how the virus is or is not affecting their business
- We recommend that organizations only discuss their policies relating to the outbreak, their advice to employees on staying healthy, and their plans to keep meeting customer needs
- Brainstorm possible media questions and responses, such as:
- Is production capacity guaranteed?
- Are responsibilities within your company for addressing aspects of the virus outbreak clear?
- Is there plan in place for dealing with the virus?
- What have you done to protect your employees?
Map communication strategies to audiences
- What is the most important information for the specific audience in question? What is their emotional context?
- What is the objective of the communication?
- How should we best deliver it?
- For regional audiences, what cultural norms do we need to be aware of?
- Segment the audience in as granular a form as needed to address the specific scenario
Maintain open communications with employees.
- One of the first priorities should be to plan for how communications will flow internally:
- The channels and cadence that employees can expect to receive information
- Determine alternative communications channels if the normal channels (which may occur in a face-to-face environment) are not available
- Remember that employees are a channel, and if you enable them with content, they can extend the reach of your information and credibility with audiences
- Do everything you can to protect your people – and the little things matter
- Showing you care during a crisis will never be forgotten
- Be open and frequent with communications
- Even if you have “no news,” simply say so
- Communicating nearly every day – at least 3 times a week – is essential
If you’d like assistance creating your plan, we’re ready to help. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.