COVID-19: Effective Internal Comms in Unprecedented Times

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Forget business as usual. Organizations must ramp up and maintain transparency during this time of crisis to reassure their employees.

Amid public angst, capital market volatility and other uncertainties, companies are increasingly being scrutinized for their response to COVID-19. Within that context, companies must evolve their internal communications efforts from crisis mode to sustained campaigns of transparency. What follows is guidance on effective internal communications with employees and other stakeholders that is designed to address the disruption and uncertainty.

Gather and Monitor Ongoing Intelligence

Staying abreast of the latest, most accurate information available is the foundation of your own successful communications. Carefully monitor advice from governments (host countries and embassies/high commissions) and public health authorities so you can keep employees accurately updated.

Tracking how competitors and other members of the business community are managing the situation is important as it provides a useful benchmark against which to measure your own efforts.

Keep an eye on social media — companies need to know what their own employees and others are saying about the crisis and potentially your response to it.

Finally, make every effort to understand the concerns of your workforce so you can accurately inform and guide your messaging to them. This may mean tuning to unofficial channels; tap the people who dominate informal communications channels in your organization and engage them. Your internal drivers often know everything that is going on and what people are thinking.

Maintain Consistent, Frequent and Multichannel Outreach

During enormous — perhaps unprecedented — uncertainty, more is more is more when it comes to internal communications. Silence for days and even hours, especially from top leadership, is deafening and unsettling.

Help ensure the leadership team is aligned on key messages and, as with any communication campaign, reinforce their presence across channels. Drive the conversation and lead the agenda in a calm voice and with a tailored approach, depending on the audience and channel of communication.

It’s essential to avoid hiding behind email and other less personal forms of mass communication, or what feels like HR speak. Leadership should be visible, with company leaders and communicators making their voices heard, whether through visiting frontline staff directly, using video messages or hosting virtual meetings.

As we all know, your biggest priority is your people, and they need to see you up close. Be creative. One company is getting extensive positive feedback from employees in China by starting a selfie video series that seeks to highlight the positive impacts — for example, how working at home increases family face time and fitness.

Create Bespoke Messaging

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to successful internal communications during a situation as uncertain and far-reaching as the coronavirus outbreak. It’s crucial to recognize and understand the specific challenges for each part of your workforce — messaging for frontline staff won’t be the same as for remote colleagues or others. At all times, strive to communicate solutions and commitment to ongoing support as the crisis unfolds. But also be ready to respond in real time to specific concerns and general uncertainty, which may require a different approach than proactive communications.

Encourage Feedback

Effective communication is always a two-way process: Actively encourage feedback from colleagues. Be prepared to respond to colleagues around the clock, both in person and virtually. Publishing and frequently updating FAQs can help lighten the response load. Maintaining a strong feedback loop also requires being prepared to address all concerns, even if they’re hard to predict. Establishing a clear link with company leaders, who will be called on to improvise at times, is essential. And to reiterate, your people are your priority — be sure to provide meaningful support for employee welfare through access to mental and physical health experts.

Remain Transparent

Communicate directly and openly about operational and market challenges the company expects to face in the near term and what the company is doing to manage it with staff well-being top of mind. Transparency is strength, even if it means communicating negative news.

Don’t downplay potential impacts. In fact, being forthright about unfortunate developments helps reinforce the leadership team’s grasp of the situation and ability to reassure employees. In addition, take the opportunity to remind employees and internal stakeholders of the company’s long-term fundamentals — these are key components in supporting recovery from the situation and continued success in the future.

Take a Global Approach

For global businesses, it is important to communicate to employees on a market-to-market basis, because most country-based employees identify with the country-business entity. However, that mandate changed at the end of February — with more new cases being reported outside China than in it became clear any internal communications needed to be globally consistent. That means stepping up corporate internal communications activities across the world to ensure consistency while allowing local responses to specific risks. Companies need to develop clear processes and accountabilities to ensure clarity and instill confidence, with global senior leaders playing their part in the engagement.

Approaching internal communications about the coronavirus pandemic with these goals in mind will help a company and its employees manage as best they can. Remember that the nature of communication may change as the crisis presents new challenges. In the face of this uncertainty, it’s appropriate to highlight the long-term strength and resilience of the company and its strategy. It’s also never too soon to think about and plan for additional phases, such as the immediate return to normalcy when the crisis abates, as well as both short-term and long-term recovery from its damage.

© Copyright 2020. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FTI Consulting, Inc. or its other professionals.

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