How to Communicate Internally & Externally During COVID-19

Crisis situations are often dangerous and unexpected; that is why it is crucial for businesses to have a crisis communication plan in place, ready for when a crisis hits. Communication and management are essential but should be tailored to the nature of the crisis.

A common definition of a crisis is “the perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organization’s performance and generate negative outcomes,” (Coombs, 1999). Crises can range from natural disasters, to terrorist attacks, to epidemics like the SARS outbreak. However, nothing in recent history has quite compared to the COVID-19 crisis, which has stunned the entire globe and brought the economy to a screeching halt. This virus is undoubtedly unprecedented and unfamiliar, which is why we are not grouping it in with typical crisis communication protocols. COVID-19 is not affecting one location, one organization, or one specific brand; it is closing down businesses, stunting commerce and restructuring daily life for citizens across the globe.

Although this is unlike any crisis we’ve encountered, it is still extremely important for your business to participate in strategic crisis communication. Communiqué Design & Marketing would like to offer tips on how to communicate internally and externally during COVID-19 while your business is operating exclusively in the virtual sphere.

Communicating Internally during COVID-19

Woman Using Her Smartphone While Working Remotely On Laptop

It is critical to communicate pertinent messages with internal stakeholders including employees and staff. Internal communications should come from top tier leadership and must be calm and informed. Panic breeds panic, and by remaining a calm entity, you can assure your internal staff that you are in the right frame of mind to receive and act on the information you share with them. It is important to exhibit poise and leadership through your internal messaging, while emphasizing how much you value your staff and their safety. Internal communication is about keeping staff informed of policies and procedures, and even preparing them for worst case scenarios.

Here are some tips for communicating internally:

  •  Put everything in writing and if possible, discuss each aspect by phone or Zoom with your staff.
  •  Send information and links in regard to up to the minute details about the Coronavirus, such as Center for Disease and Control, Tompkins County Health Department, NYS Health Department, Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce and other service providers.
  •  Touch base with your staff at least once or twice a day to discuss projects, strategy, and share information regarding project management.
  •  Be transparent and collect concerns and thoughts from staff about how they are feeling about their employment and if will they be furloughed. Also, share information regarding unemployment restrictions or guidelines and stimulus money or deferred payments that are being offered.
  •  Retaining your workforce is critical as building a new workforce from scratch can be very difficult with all the moving parts and changes in the future. Talk to your sphere of influence and trusted advisors about how to do this.
  •  Most importantly, stay healthy, keep a positive attitude, and lead by example.

Communicating Externally during COVID-19

Email Marketing Newsletter Email Envelope

It is critical to communicate to external stakeholders such as consumers, stockholders, board members, the media, etc. These external stakeholders need to receive important and necessary information from organizations so they can make informed decisions for themselves and their families. It is strategic and reassuring to have this messaging and information come from top tier leadership and CEOs if possible. The message should be as personal as possible, but also informed and factual. Communiqué will provide examples of these later on. Although it shows thought leadership to release an external message before others, it is also not a bad idea to see what other organizations are doing and saying first before putting out a company statement.

It is also important to note how social media impacts crisis management. Because of today’s technologically savvy world, social media has effectively reduced the time an organization has to respond to a crisis. Utilizing this medium is incredibly important in terms of stopping the spread of misinformation and answering customer questions. Social media provides organizations with tools for responding to crises. Considering the specific nature of COVID-19 (social distancing, more use of social media), it is also important to monitor the saturation rates of social media to determine the best time to release external messaging. Over-communicating during a crisis can create disruption and frustration for those trying to weed through everything being shared.

What should your messaging look like? Given the serious circumstances of this global health crisis, it is crucial to acknowledge the criticality of the situation and your business’s consideration for public health. Although the media is flooded with tips on how to prevent contracting and spreading the virus, it does not hurt to reinforce this information. One of the best ways a business can gain control is by delivering honest, detailed and reliable information and proving itself to be a good source (Liss, 2002).

It is also strategic to align yourself as a community member and team player, since many businesses are all in the same situation right now. Your organization should deliver the important message that it is an integral part of the community and it shares the same duties and rights as everyone else.” (Avraham & Ketter). Businesses must comply with state mandates and make sure the external public is aware that it is doing its part.

Here are four key tips:       

  1. Respond quickly. Develop two-way communication with the media to reduce misinformation and help get your message through. Make sure this message is as simple as possible (despite the complexity of the situation) and stick to it.
  2. Speak with one voice. By being consistent with one spokesperson, the organization can develop its key messages and discourage the use of unofficial spokespeople.
  3. Openness. Allow high availability to the media, willingness to disclose information and honesty.
  4. Express sympathy to those most affected by the virus.

Here are some additional tips on how to communicate externally:        

  •  Reach out to each of your clients and vendors, if possible by phone, or by email to let them know you are still in operation, (various levels of operation) in two layers. For your most valued clients, you should personalize a conversation and get a pulse of what they are doing and how you can be helpful. Try to get a sense of how you can assist the broader community as well.
  •  Messages need to be coordinated. If you can direct clients to other service providers, please do, crossing messages in several groups can become fragmented and overwhelming.
  •  For other clients who are a layer removed, make sure you are sharing messages on your websites and social media channels.
  •  Bigger businesses should do as much as they can with PR. Push out releases to the media, encourage interviews, editorials and panel discussions to update the external community on the status of their operation, or changes the campaign is making to meet the needs of the community, the state, and possibly the world.
  •  For those messages that require quality control, we are suggesting our clients take out paid advertising from their Presidents and CEO’s to get the word out about products, services and resources that are being created or developed to support clients.
  •  Send clients to trusted sources in the markets they serve.

Below are some examples from a few of our own clients’ external communications:

Ithaca Tompkins International Airport

 

Print

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Radio

Cayuga Lake National Bank

 

Social Media

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Tompkins Trust Company 

 

Social Media / Blog

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Press Release

Tompkins Trust Company disseminated a press release regarding its new loan deferment program, which received wide media coverage.

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