Mar 9

Seven considerations for communicating COVID-19

Italy institutes a sweeping quarantine, locking down more than one-quarter of its population over the weekend. Saudi Arabia suspends flights from nine countries, closes its schools, slashes oil prices and prepares to increase production. Global stock markets respond with another nosedive this morning, roiled by tumbling oil prices and the spread of COVID-19.

Closer to home, 34 U.S. states have confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, although Michigan is not yet one of them. South by Southwest tearily announced the cancellation of this year’s beloved film, music and tech conference, which was slated to start Saturday. Global automaker Ford has banned all non-essential travel throughout most of March.

It’s impossible to turn on broadcast news or open a newspaper without seeing COVID-19 or coronavirus screaming from the headlines. Even if you are not prone to anxiety, the steady drumbeat of coverage can be distressing.

We’ve been talking for the last month about the local response to the outbreak, which traces its roots to China and has now killed 3,809 and sickened 109,343 in 104 countries, according to this morning’s tally from the World Health Organization. In February, we did a successful media pitch on the impact the virus is having on the global automotive supply. We’ve amplified messages from clients, who have been sharing best practices on responding to COVID-19.

We continue to have conversations with clients about workplace interruption, postponing or canceling large events and the dreaded what ifs – what if there’s an outbreak in West Michigan? How can I safeguard my clients and my team? What can and should I as an employer be doing now? As one of my clients wrote over the weekend, “I feel like we are a cruise ship, waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

My team and I have now assisted several clients in developing communications for their constituencies. As we went through this process last week, I found myself reflecting on best practices for sharing this and other urgent news:

Don’t panic.

This remains the first – and best – place to start with any type of communication outreach. While the media may be breathless in its tumble to report, employers should not be. Remain calm and measured.

Just the facts.

Share accurate information in a timely manner. Don’t speculate. Don’t downplay. Don’t provide false reassurances.

Lean on the experts.

Now is no time for employers to become experts in infectious disease. Rely on readily available information from recognized experts. The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both have robust resources available online. Locally, the team at Spectrum Health has quickly developed and aggregated helpful content on its website.

Tailor to your audience.

Make sure your message takes the special needs of your stakeholders into consideration, particularly if you work with higher risk populations, such as the elderly or those with compromised immune systems.

Aim for action.

It’s debilitating to feel we can do nothing in response to a given situation. Provide your stakeholders with useful information they can act on, whether that’s reminders on hand hygiene, coughing or cleaning.

Don’t over-reach.

Employers, know your limits. You cannot require employees to be tested for the coronavirus, even if we did have enough test kits available to do so. You also cannot ban personal travel for your team. Be wary of well-intended but illegal actions.

Update regularly.

Your stakeholders will want to know that you’re keeping an eye on spread of the disease and its impact. Be sure to provide updates on a regular basis.


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