Coronavirus communication: getting it right

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Who knew six weeks ago that our world would be consumed by a health crisis? Coronavirus (COVID-19) has taken over our news feeds. And for those organisations with strong business connections with China, it has diverted resource into developing ‘plan Bs’ and business continuity.

If you are a New Zealand organisation with import/exports links into China or if you have staff working in-market, I’m sure you’ve already developed a set of regular communications aimed at keeping your staff, customers and key stakeholders informed.

The HMC team has been busy working with some of our larger clients on communications plans. 

In situations like this where health issues are potentially reaching epidemic or pandemic proportions, people will panic if they aren’t well informed. At a basic level, HMC recommends the following approach to get your communications right during a health crisis such as coronavirus:

1. Follow Ministry of Health advice and messages – In a health crisis, the Ministry of Health will keep the public informed on what actions to take.  Ensure you pass along these messages without embellishment.  We’ve also found the World Health Organisation has some great resources you can download and use, like posters for public areas.

2. Keep it simple – In times when messages are critical for your audiences to understand, and particularly if people are stressed, it’s extremely important to keep messages in very simple language and direct.  This isn’t time for a lot of fluff!

3. Use your website as the one source of truth – Consider putting up a webpage on your website with information about what you are doing as an organisation with links to the Ministry of Health and other helpful information.  Then, use this webpage as the one source of truth that you update as you have further information.  Then, your email, text, or social media updates to staff and stakeholders can be short and include a link to the website for more information.  If you only need to keep staff informed, you may choose to create a page on your intranet or other internal, shared channel.

4. Translate into different languages – If your audience is made of people where English is their second language, get your communications translated into key languages.  In the case of coronavirus, if you have Chinese customers, suppliers and/or staff it would be good to get things translated into Mandarin.  If you have staff in New Zealand of various languages, to ensure clarity, consider if you need to include messaging in other languages.

5. Tell your staff first, stakeholders second and make any public messaging last – Prioritise your audiences and ensure you deliver important messages in the right order.  However, all should be communicated within very quick succession.

6. Include social media if your audiences are engaged online – If you know your customers or other external stakeholders are engaged on your social media channels, consider putting a notice up and link it to a webpage for more information.  In this case, WeChat is an important social channel for reaching Chinese customers and other key stakeholders.

7. Update regularly, even if there’s not much more to say – If you have staff and stakeholders who are very close to the situation and worried about it, then it’s important to communication with them often to ensure they remain alert, but don’t start to panic unnecessarily or make assumptions around what you may or may not be doing.  Even if there’s not much more to say, provide regular updates to assure people you are managing the situation and in control (as much as you can be!).

8. Regularly meet with key people in your organisation – If your organisation is on high alert, you should form a working group and meet often.  How often will be different for different organisations and could be daily, twice weekly or ad hoc as more information comes to hand.  Don’t rely on email for people to be informed, as busy people may miss important notices.  Face-to-face discussions and decision making are important when dealing with major issues and crises.

9. Be flexible – No one likes a plan more than myself.  But, in times like this the situation is changing daily.  The communications you planned yesterday, can be outdated today.  So, remain flexible and be ready to move fast.

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of coronavirus communications tips, but it should help you get started.  Best of luck and keep safe!

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