Communications in the Time of Coronavirus

Mar 10, 2020 | Crisis Communications

Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

The coronavirus outbreak has thrown us into uncharted and frightening territory. There are many unknowns, which makes this global health crisis especially unnerving. How long it will last? How will it impact your business? What will happen to the U.S. and global economy? How many people will become ill or die?

As we face all of these questions and more, being proactive and preparing as much as you possibly can could make a big difference, and that includes getting out in front of your communication’s efforts.

Facing it head on

Whether you are a global entity or a small business or somewhere in between, now is not the time to put your head in the sand and hope that COVID-19 will magically go away. In fact, pretending that it is business as usual could have serious consequences and long-lasting impact.

Instead, you must take a proactive, thoughtful, and informed approach and keep the lines of communication as open as possible with your employees, colleagues, customers, and constituents.

Now is the time to step up and take concrete steps that will ultimately help you and your customers stay safer and survive this very difficult time.

Many of us are overwhelmed with fear, panic, and anxiety. I get it. For many businesses, the line between a successful year and complete disaster can be alarmingly thin. But if you are an entrepreneur, business leader or business owner, now is the time to step up and take some concrete steps that will ultimately help you and your customers stay safer and survive this very difficult time.

Leading the way

Why is taking a proactive stance on communications so important during a crisis?

Jonathan Bernstein writes that in the absence of internal and external communications related to a crisis or disaster, “the organization will be perceived as inept, at best, and criminally negligent, at worst.” In addition, he says that “stakeholders won’t know what is happening and quickly become confused, angry, and negatively reactive.”

That’s the last thing you or your business needs during what is already a very difficult time. In light of this, here are a few steps you can take now to avoid making a bad situation worse.

  • Assemble a crisis communications team, which might include your executive team, HR, IT, operations, legal and external communications/PR consultants. Depending on the size of your organization, several of those roles might be just one person or it might be an entire department. This group is responsible for your crisis communications plan and should meet often to craft and review policies and messaging, and evaluate the quickly changing landscape.
  • Gather as much information as you can from reliable sources such as the CDC and the World Health Organization about what you can do to keep your employees and customers safe. If you are a food service or hospitality business, for example, that could mean implementing additional environmental and disinfection protocols like the ones recommended by the CDC. For event planners, it might mean providing COVID-19 prevention supplies at your events and actively discouraging people who are sick from attending events. The steps that your business is taking to address safety concerns should be communicated clearly to staff, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders.
  • Be honest and transparent. Whatever steps your business is taking, it’s imperative to share that information with your stakeholders early and often through email, text messaging, social media, and phone calls. Also be mindful about how your audience consumes information so that you can be sure they aren’t left in the dark. Do you have stakeholders that need information in different languages? What about elderly customers? What about people who are visually impaired?
  • Keep the messaging as simple and easy to understand as possible. Communications strategist Doug Levy writes, “When people are afraid, there is little anyone can do to convince them they are safe. As scientists gather more data that explains who is at risk for coronavirus, that information may be useful to doctors but it will only muddle your messages. Use direct sentences with active not passive verbs, include only the essential details, and keep it short.”
  • Respond quickly. Your customers and stakeholders will likely reach out with questions and concerns. It’s important that you have consistent and thoughtful responses to their concerns and that you respond as quickly as possible. This is a quickly evolving crisis so be prepared to update information frequently.
  • Monitor the news and social media for information and mentions of your company and others in your industry. Check out your industry’s professional associations and groups to see what guidance they are putting out. For example, The Yoga Alliance and The American Hotel and Lodging Association have issued prevention and preparedness resource guides for their members.
  • Try to remain calm, vigilant, pro-active, empathetic, and above all, safe.

Additional resources:

Crowdsourced list of public Coronavirus // Covid-19 company policies, updates, conference & school closures, and resources.

Crisis Communications Plan Templates

World Health Association Updates on Coronovirus

The Four Pivotal Stages of Crisis Management

COVID-19 message from the Seattle Art Museum

COVID-19 message from Lyft

COVD-19 message from the National Restaurant Association

Handwashing 101


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