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Sep 1, 2020

Facing times of crisis: An internal communications playbook

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At times of great uncertainty and change, clear communication becomes more important than ever—but also more difficult. How do we calm fears and keep focused on the future when we’re surrounded by panic and all our plans have been turned upside down? This is a situation that calls on us to use all our internal and external resources for the common benefit. In that spirit, here is what we’re able to share about effective internal communication in times of crisis. As an internal communication professional (or anyone tasked with employee communications), your first task should be to ensure that your role is represented on the team that is planning your organisation’s crisis response. If you can’t have a member on that team, ask for a direct contact and stay in direct and regular communication with them. Remind your colleagues that employees are among the most critical stakeholders in your organisation right now.

Communicate often, communicate effectively

Information hates a vacuum—so if there is no credible and reliable communication, the gap fills up with misinformation and rumor. On the macro scale, we can see this as people sending around rumors, conspiracy theories and dubious self-help tips on platforms like WhatsApp. On the micro scale inside our organisations, employees are wondering, and almost certainly talking about, how the business will cope and whether their jobs are safe. On the macro scale, we can all help by limiting the spread of misinformation and encouraging trust in expert sources. This means:
  1. Avoid using internal communication channels to send any information about COVID-19 that you have not carefully fact-checked.
  2. Encourage everyone to use reliable sources, and use them yourself. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is the ultimate authority, and they have a very useful site dedicated to the pandemic. Locally, the UAE Department of Health has its own site with links to helpful information.

Stay calm amid the storm

Next, help people cope with uncertainty by projecting a voice of calm and sending regular updates. This can include:
  1. Acknowledging that the situation is changing rapidly and new data is coming in every day.
  2. Reassuring employees that the business has a plan in place, and that this plan may change in response to new information.
  3. Framing changes as signs of responsiveness and agility, rather than instability. Explain the reason behind every decision.
  4. Checking in daily, even if there is nothing new to report except that everything is going according to plan. This will become especially important as more people work from home.
  5. Providing resources to help people cope with stress and anxiety. Simply admitting publicly that this is a stressful situation is already a good step. The WHO has useful information to share here, and Harvard Medical School also has useful hints here.
You will also need to ensure that you are communicating effectively, using the channels, languages and locations that your employees prefer. This will vary from company to company; consider carefully how you will mix email, print, mobile communications, your intranet and other methods depending on your different audiences.

Listen, respond and look to the future

Finally, good communication is two-way communication! How are you going to listen to your employees? Consider setting up special channels for COVID-19-specific questions, and make sure someone is monitoring those channels and responding quickly. You may want to set up a microsite or a shared document with responses to common questions. There are likely to be many questions and fears about the organisation’s future. Even if you can’t answer these yourself, explain to people how their questions are being raised to the right level, and share responses as soon as possible. Finally, for yourself and everyone in your organisation and your community, remember that after every emergency there is a recovery. The next few weeks and months may be difficult, but they will pass, and the recovery will begin. Let us take care of ourselves and each other until that time.

Author: Pam Sykes

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