As the world adjusts to life during a pandemic, corporate leaders are tasked with the challenge of creating an effective internal crisis communication plan quickly. As with any interruption in the flow of business and industries, CEOs and communications teams must arm their top leaders with the right information and careful guidance about how they can support their people and continue to move the business forward. This helps keep the internal conversation fluid and strong, and a thoughtful crisis communication plan is the only way to keep employees engaged and optimistic, especially in difficult times.
How do you know if your strategy is hitting the mark—or falling short? Ask yourself these poignant questions, ASAP.
1. Are you showing empathy and compassion?
First and foremost, express empathy to your staff on day one—and then each day that follows. Throughout a crisis, leaders and team members at every level face daily anxiety, uncertainty and frustration with both their work and their personal lives. That’s why they need to feel more supported than ever from their employer. If you haven’t already, create a video (via Zoom or another platform) to express empathy during this unprecedented time. This visibility will go a long way to develop trust throughout each level of the organization.
2. Are all leaders actively engaged?
By now, it’s likely that most, if not all, of your employees are taking calls from their homes and figuring out the best ways to remain productive away from the office. It’s not second-nature for everyone, which is why touch-points are essential. Leaders across all segments of the organization should be checking in with their direct-reports regularly to ensure communication remains strong from a distance. During these check-ins, managers can provide suggestions on how to improve workflow, answer lingering questions, and create a meeting cadence that makes sense with the team’s schedule, structure and size.
This is also a helpful time when leaders can—and should—check in with employees about their state of mind. Arm them with questions to ask about how their people are feeling, as well as how they are personally impacted by the situation at hand. After all, as your leaders navigate through your pandemic plan, your ultimate goal is to be supportive.
Starting from the very top, all the way to the entry-level employees, having dedicated 1:1s can fundamentally strengthen the culture of the company. It also provides managers and leaders with a consistent pulse of how every team member is functioning during a stressful event, allowing managers and leaders to rededicate their energy toward those who need it to the most. Touchpoints at every level create a well-functioning organization that can help you execute any crisis communication plan smoothly.
3. Have you created your leadership toolkit?
Arguably one of the essential pieces of a pandemic plan is also the hardest: being honest about how the company is impacted. On a human level, employees and leaders alike are worried about their jobs. Their income. Their access to health insurance and other benefits. Their career trajectory—and the list goes on.
Team members will have many questions about the state of business, their careers and the expectations heading into an undefined future. That’s where a leadership toolkit can be a highly effective resource. Your plan can be in the form of a document, an internal hub or private website and doesn’t have to be elaborate. Remember: It’s impossible to communicate too much, and in times of crisis, it’s better to communicate imperfectly than not at all. Based on the feedback you receive from the individual meetings with executives, you can create a toolkit that includes at least the following:
- Key messages and talking points about the crisis and the company’s response to it: How is your specific company impacted by COVID-19? How has business shifted? How has the leadership team responded?
- Specific messages about the impact on particular areas of the business, as needed: Be transparent about what’s happening across the company, and how the executives are preparing to weather the storm.
- Change Timeline and Plan: Even if there are many unknowns about the future during an unprecedented time, it’s important to map out the changes your business might undergo over the next 30, 60, 90 days—and well beyond. This may be a rough outline that has many question marks, but it should be enough to reassure the staff that their leaders are strategizing the best solutions.
- Overview of Upcoming Communications: Channels, Cadence, Content and Owners: Which leader will be in charge of what form of communication? Who is the audience? And what medium will that information be delivered—Slack, email, etc. What content do leaders agree can be shared? Ensure your team is aligned before going public with the entire team.
- FAQs: Dependent on your industry, this can cover many bases, and should grow over time as you make space for ongoing conversations with your people. Employees will have questions about many policies—from vacations to healthcare—that should be answered here. As an intricate part of a crisis communication plan, anything you believe a team member may inquire about should be included in this living-and-breathing document. Employees may ask about financial implications, impacts or shifts in business direction, potential for layoffs or furloughs, mental health benefits, and so on.
- Resources: This should include all recommendations from local, state, and national governments concerning the coronavirus, as well as guidance for employees on who to contact if they are in need. This might also be an area where you provide a budget for your leaders to use for discretionary funds to build morale virtually.
- Key contacts: Include all the ways people can stay in touch, and who to turn to for answers, including Corporate communications, HR benefits teams, Media relations, and others.
4. Are you communicating—even when you don’t have answers?
To tame employee fear and anxiety, leaders should host a business-wide virtual town hall meeting to explain the state of business—not only today but throughout the next quarter, and beyond, as well. Not sure about what the next week looks like? Or the next month? It’s okay. Oftentimes, it’s better to over-communicate—even if you don’t have any news to share—than to remain silent. When you are tight-lipped, it creates panic, uncertainty and speculation—and ultimately causes productivity to suffer.
5. Have you identified your internal champions?
Start with your executive team, then look deeper into the organization to brainstorm who will become your crisis communication champions. These are the internal leaders who guide communication to all managers and their teams as long as the crisis persists, and help keep on a steady path. Within this group, you should have one spokesperson or dedicated team who will handle external dialogue, should it be necessary, and serve as the resource for employees to direct questions toward. By designating these champions, you can be rest assured they are handling the day-to-day processes, so you are freed up to create long-term strategies to maintain your business’s lifeline.
And remember, not all champions bear c-level titles. Throughout any difficult time, employees at all levels are inspired to step up and give back to their community and their company. When these champions raise their hands to assist and dedicate their extra time to support others, leaders should celebrate their efforts. And, make sure you advertise the various ways others can get involved, should they feel inclined. While no one should feel pressure to go above and beyond, employees should know where they can make a difference.
6. Are you maintaining a constant communication flow?
While a kickoff meeting is helpful at the start of a chaotic time, it’s only the beginning of your strategy. Part of an effective crisis communication plan is being flexible as the situation—both internally and externally—shifts. Use every channel at your disposal to continue a two-way dialogue throughout the crisis and beyond.
7. Are you available?
Engaged employees retain trust in their employer when they know he or she is an available resource. As much as you can, check-in with your leaders to ask how they are doing on a personal level. And, if your schedule allows, consider hosting ‘office hours’ where any employee can book a 15-minute debrief with you. Empathetic executives are the ones who have the most impact, during the good and the rough times alike.
8. Are you planning for the future?
If there is a silver lining to a pandemic plan, it’s this: all companies in all industries will learn something from the experience. Whether it’s a reignited zest for remote work or a new segment of business development, your ability to restructure, respond, and react to current trends will set you apart from competitors. And most importantly, if you can react with empathy, compassion, and level-headed strategic thinking, you will be demonstrating to employees and future employees that there’s good reason to stay with you for the long haul.
Though we can’t predict the future, we can set up our company and teams for optimal performance with these smart initiatives. And perhaps, come back even stronger on the other side.