As leadership teams consider, develop and implement coronavirus business continuity strategies, the critical role played by internal and external communications is often overlooked. Your messaging about those decisions and directives can generate confidence and compliance — or just as easily spawn distrust, intentional disregard and fear.
Every company needs to adopt messaging that reflects its chief business concerns, corporate culture, etc. But, following certain general communications guidelines can help inspire trust in your judgment and support for your decisions as you navigate this challenge.
Evergreen Partners has spent the last two weeks advising our clients on how to communicate their plans with employees, boards of directors, clients/customers, vendors, etc. I’ve distilled that advice into these 10 tips. Reach out to us if more detailed and nuanced assistance would be helpful.
- Don’t hide. Take control.
If you don’t lead the conversation, someone else will — requiring you play defense to set the record straight. Establishing a communication channel about the coronavirus ASAP provides a pathway for updates, enhancements and, if necessary, corrections, as the need dictates.
- Identify the communication channel that best meets your needs.
Depending on the size and complexity of your operation, the best communication channel may be highly personal (e.g., a phone call), moderately personal (texts or emails, town hall meeting) or highly impersonal (posts on an intranet, companywide message board or digital newsletter).
- Make sure your plans align with state Department of Health, U.S. Centers for Disease Control or World Health Organization guidelines.
That way, you can gain credibility and authority for your decisions from those trusted entities, and your directives are less easily dismissed as being self-serving.
- Be direct, clear and specific about your concerns and about the steps you’re taking in response.
The more concise and focused the message, the more likely the recipients will follow your directives with trust. The fuzzier and less transparent your communication, the more likely it will generate a lack of confidence and real fear.
- Identify a sole source of the messages and a establish a single channel of communication.
Messages coming from several individuals, even if all are “bosses,” are often seen as contradictory. People will choose to trust the message they want to hear — probably the one that increases their distrust and fear. When messages come from one source along an expected communications channel, alternatives are more easily dismissed as unreliable rumors.
- Promise to keep your recipients informed as the situation and your plans evolve. And do so.
Nature abhors a vacuum. If you leave a void, someone else will fill it with misinformation, alternative facts or rumor. Even if no one does, a void itself feeds fear and distrust.
- Communicate appreciation for your employees.
Your employees are chiefly concerned about the welfare of their families and their own long-term job security. Express concern for their situation and appreciation for their loyalty and dedication to your company’s customers/clients and the work they do. That message goes a long way.
- Make sure those employees who can work from home have the resources they need to do so.
While this isn’t technically a communications issue, it will become one if they don’t have what they need. You don’t want to nurture a culture of complaint that spins out of control in interemployee emails and spills virally into the social media universe.
- Communicate appreciation for your trusted “partners.”
Customers, clients, vendors, service providers and other businesses “partners” are suffering the impact of the coronavirus, too — possibly more that you are. Recognize that they are concerned about the impact of your decisions on their operations (e.g., will they get paid, will you cancel orders, deliver your products?). Ask how, given your own constraints, you can help them.
- Give those “partners” direct contact with the person in your company they trust most.
These messages should come from the individual in your company who “owns” the partner relationship. No matter her title or role, she will be the most empathetic and get the best response from the partner.
Warren Cooper of Evergreen Partners provides media relations guidance, strategic communication counsel and litigation support to C-suite executives, education leaders, litigation attorneys and political clients facing personal or institutional crises, informed by his experience as a New Jersey mayor, school board president, businessman and professor.