Effective internal communication during a crisis

The 2019 Novel Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is elevating the role of internal communications within organizations. Employees are worried by the rapidly evolving overall situation while being flooded with information and opinion from the news and social media. This makes it even tougher to share your critical corporate updates and engage with them.

While a lot of large enterprises have dedicated internal communicators, a lot of smaller and mid-sized companies don’t have the same kind of resources to deal with a public safety issue. If your job entails employee outreach, you are facing a new level of expectations and pressure.

The current situation features rapidly changing demands driven by factors that can’t all be controlled from within the organization. This means communication needs to shift to a high-touch approach with the right cadence of engagement, organized by priorities. Here are four suggestions to help you make crisis communication as effective as possible. 

1. Organize outreach by priority

Think about a triage system for your communication with employees. For example:

  • Priority 1: What does every employee need to know immediately and what do you need to make sure everyone sees? Send Priority 1 posts or emails right away and mark them in a way that everyone knows to read without delay. 
  • Priority 2: What is important to help keep employees informed and updated, but doesn’t require immediate action for everyone who reads it? This could be a “daily update” at a certain time of day every day.
  •  Priority 3: What will be helpful to maintain a sense of togetherness and support during a difficult time? Priority 3 information could be mixed in throughout the day, and they could come from different leaders, not just you.

2. Emphasize leadership communication 

Depending on how long this situation continues, people may not just be worried about their health and the health of their loved ones; they may also worry about the health of the company and whether they will be losing their jobs. A regular cadence of emails or updates from the CEO will provide reassurance on how things are going for the organization overall. These CEO updates can also be used to call out great key learnings or ideas from individuals and teams within the organization. Depending on level of technology use within your organization, it could also be delivered as a video, which can help increase engagement. But that needs to be thought through. It’s important that technology enables speedy leadership communication rather than getting in its way.

Think about briefing other key executives and managers to make them part of your communication cadence. For example, if there is an update relevant mostly for a specific region or department, it can be helpful to have a regional or department lead set it into the right context. Staying in touch with these executives, managers and leads is also critical to identifying what is top of mind for team members. In a decentralized and remote work setting, they can help create the necessary feedback loops to inform your priority communication.

3. Maintain consistency in messaging

It is helpful to keep a running Q&A document for the most important employee questions. As time progresses, you will still get a lot of the same questions, but the situation may have changed, so you may need to adjust while still keeping a single source of truth. A Q&A document will be really helpful to stay consistent in communication without contradicting yourself, especially in situations where you have to move fast.

There are templates out there that can help with crisis communications planning. For example, the International Association of Business Communicators has a resource page with information and resources around communication for COVID-19. A quick Google search for “coronavirus crisis communication” shows other articles and resources with valuable guidance on communication and business continuity. 

4. Communicate through the platforms your stakeholders prefer

As companies are transitioning to having all or part of their teams working remotely, communication and collaboration technologies become a focal point. Email, intranet solutions, online collaboration apps like Slack or Microsoft Teams, and digital workplace platforms like Beezy and others help those in charge of internal communications keep employees updated with consistent, accurate information and, ideally, create feedback loops to understand and address what is top of mind for team members. Some of these platforms are now offering free crisis communication templates.

If working remotely and using the associated technologies is new to many members of the organization, you should think about distributing your priority information in different ways. While forced remote work situations will push employees to adopt new technologies faster, there will invariably be different learning curves, so not everyone may see the critical update posted in the new employee Slack channel. If email has been the traditional communication vehicle of choice for important corporate information, now may not be the best time to cut that off. In that case, consider distributing high priority items both through email and in collaboration channels. When it really matters, it is better to annoy some people with duplicate information than risking others not getting the message fast enough.  

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