Communicating in the time of Covid-19
More than ever, its vital that businesses communicate effectively, internally and externally
I’m sitting at my dining room table writing this piece while my wife works downstairs, and our two kids remote-learn in the next room. Meanwhile, our two dogs alternate between antsy and listless, wondering why their humans are hanging out with them every day.
Tomorrow, our Merrill family version of Bill Murray’s classic “Groundhog Day” will begin once again. The same four walls, the same (much loved) faces and the same Zoom after Zoom purgatory. Sound familiar?
To say Covid-19 has upended our personal lives is a dramatic understatement, and the business world has also been turned upside-down. Millions of Americans, including many friends we know here, are suddenly unemployed and hurting while long-established companies and start-ups alike struggle to hang on.
More than ever, its vital that businesses communicate effectively – internally and externally – to weather the storm and be ready for the changed world that follows. Here are 10 points to keep in mind:
- Engage. In this era of countless communication platforms generating massive amounts of content, it may feel too overwhelming to try and break through. You might think it’s easier to sit back and ride this out. Don’t. Your communications reflect your values, and help you promote your company and interests at a critical time, while defining your standing as a business and community leader. Get in the game.
- Plan. If you didn’t have a communications plan in place before Covid-19 hit, it’s not too late to build one or improve upon it. Build your core communication team, develop your top message and talking points, determine who you want to target, set metrics for how you want to communicate and work your plan.
- Be flexible. Once your plan is in place, regularly evaluate your communications efforts. What’s working, what isn’t? What new circumstances demand a course correction? Be nimble enough to adapt, trim or add to your plan depending on the challenge or opportunity presented.
- Target. Your message should be consistent but adaptable. Always keep in mind who you’re speaking with – employees, other businesses, customers or clients, vendors, regulators or legislators. Some points may resonate with one audience but fall flat with another. Be aware, know your audience and modify as necessary.
- Boss out front. Employees want to hear from the boss. Have him or her run point on communications efforts. Studies show employees trust their employers to keep them reliably informed. So rely on experts, avoid gossip or rumor and always be transparent and honest. You won’t always have all the answers – it’s OK to say so.
- Communicate regularly. We are consuming information at a record pace, so your audiences expect you to communicate regularly. Let your employees know what’s happening, what it means and what you’re doing about it. Are you changing the way your employees remote work? Explain it. Are there relevant state or federal updates? Share them. And if there is a Covid-19 infection in your workplace, carefully guard the employee’s legally protected privacy but share the news generally and explain your plan to clean and contact trace in accordance with state and federal guidelines. Your employees are anxious enough as it is – reassure them that you have things covered.
- Be creative. With your external communications, be thoughtful and try to avoid the now standard “in these _____ times” types of lines that are clogging inboxes across this great land. Email is useful, but it isn’t your only tool. Use video, plan webinars, earn media through writing, show a lighter side on social media, personalize your language, share anecdotes, and always work to be relatable and authentic.
- Pick up the phone. The art of the phone call has been lost in recent years, in lieu of a quick text, a generic email or, worst of all, passively monitoring Facebook or Instagram feeds for updates. Pick up the phone. Call your key customers, clients or vendors. Call old friends or people you’ve always meant to connect with but never have. People are feeling stretched and stressed right now, but they will be grateful you reached out, and you may pick up valuable insights in the process.
- Keep your elected officials in the loop. Whether the governor and his administration, your board of selectmen or anyone in between, keep them apprised of how you are and what you’re doing. Every one of them is dealing with Covid-19. They will appreciate your proactive outreach and they can help you get your message out to other stakeholders.
- Plan for the future. I know, it’s hard to think about right now. But at some point the economy is going to open again. How are you going to own those first 30, 60 and 90 days? Map out a post-Covid communications strategy now, so you can flip a switch when its time and seize the moment.
In the end, remember that everyone is under a lot of stress, so be kind and patient. We are all being tested – and not just by daily references to Tiger King and Joe Exotic. Take care of your families, love your neighbors (from a healthy six-foot distance), and work your communications plan now and for the future.
Jim Merrill, managing shareholder of the Bernstein Shur law firm in New Hampshire, is a longtime public affairs and communications consultant for businesses and nonprofits.