Aiken PR

The Briefing

Trust is the critical factor in coronavirus communications

by Claire Aiken

10/03/2020

The COVID–19 virus did not take long to reach our shores.  Last month in this column I posed the question Should business panic? The obvious answer of course, is no, as panic achieves little, however neither should they have their collective proverbial head in the sand.

Across the world there are marked differences in approaches to the virus not only in terms of its containment but in terms of economics.

The thinktank, the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) makes a fundamental point in a paper entitled Economics in the Time of Covid–19, saying it is imperative that public authorities must remain “extraordinarily trustworthy”.  

How do they achieve that?  According to the CEPR, they must achieve it by acting only on the facts and steering clear of the political. 

Remaining factual, surely is the key for all businesses.  Undoubtedly there is a great deal of confusion and concern within the workplace.  With confirmed cases rising in the west on an hourly basis, it is imperative that businesses are able to both look to government for reassurance and in turn act to reassure a workforce that is constantly consuming news that is often coloured by titanic headlines and social media discourse that often tips over into hysteria. 

Experts have been warning for years that the world is overdue a major disease outbreak and indeed at the time of writing we have a situation where more than 100,000 people are now known to be infected with COVID–19, and more than 3,400 deaths have been recorded worldwide. However, context is everything…while this virus presents medical, social and economic challenges, the fact is, the world has never been in a better position to handle it, technological and medical advancements mean we are well placed to fight it.  And, it is worth remembering, if we are infected, we are highly unlikely to die from it.

So, what should businesses do?  They should act quickly to develop a formal response plan and, critically, they should communicate with staff.

Employees’ health and wellbeing must be a business imperative, particularly in a time of crises as they are crucial to business continuity.  An informed workforce that knows where to go to find the latest information that is correct and up to date is one that will have trust and confidence and be engaged.  Businesses need to focus on communicating clearly internally and offering the necessary flexibility to help employees balance the situation with their work, their travel commitments and personal responsibilities.

This means providing daily updates.  With the evolving nature of the virus’s spread, communicating updates at a pace is essential, with additional critical information shared in real time. The updates should provide reassurance, ongoing guidance and next steps with the aim of helping to keep employees informed and calm.

Alignment across your organisation is key so whether it’s email, SMS, Microsoft Teams, Yammer or another platform you need to make sure that all messages and updates are communicated at the one time. For those in charge of internal communications, a key challenge is instituting a single source of truth and a means of preventing the spread of rumours and confusion by centralising information internally.  Strike the right tone

Keeping staff up to date on all the latest measures, while being open and honest and providing critical information in the right tone is a real challenge. Striking the balance between bombarding staff and not amplifying the sense of crisis must be a priority. Ensure your policies and key communication lines are agreed as well reminding staff that the most up to date UK government advice can be found at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-information-for-the-public. This is updated daily and includes links to the current government action plan so would be worth keeping an eye on.

Internal policies

Be clear about how your internal policies are impacted by the current crisis. Work together with HR on issues such as travel and sick pay and get the guidance out as early as possible. The Prime Minister recently announced that Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) will be payable from the first day of absence, rather than employees having to serve three “waiting days” before they are entitled to SSP. Emergency legislation is still to be introduced so for now, the position remains that if someone is off sick and only entitled to SSP, they still have to serve the three waiting days before being entitled to SSP. Businesses can of course exercise their discretion and pay for the three days, and while companies are not obliged to do they may wish to do so to avoid the possibility of someone coming into work when they could be infected or be a carrier of the virus.

Contingency planning

With numbers of people affected still on the rise across Europe, all businesses should by now have developed a contingency plan that will, as far as possible, allow for business continuity.  That plan too must be shared with employees to maintain trust, confidence and reassurance in a rapidly changing and fluid situation. 

So amid the rising global and local worry and misinformation, trust remains the critical factor for coronavirus communication to your workforce.  Three things to keep in mind: reassurance that your senior management is updated and compliant with government advice, timely information updates as to any change in circumstances in the workplace and preventive measures employees can take and where to seek appropriate health care advice.  A central single internal source of information will help communicate to a workforce worried about their jobs and health.