Coronavirus: How to communicate with employees, customers and vendors

Ideally, your company communicates with employees, customers and vendors regularly – in good times and bad. Anytime there’s a natural disaster or extraordinary circumstances like the coronavirus pandemic, the temptation to circle the wagons, hunker down and wait out the crisis is great.

While you’re sheltering in place, one of the most important things you can do is to communicate openly and honestly with your employees, customers and vendors. They need reassurance you’re prepared for a coronavirus-related disruption, that you’re helping to protect their interests, including their health and well-being, and that they’re getting reliable, trustworthy information.

What to Do Before You Communicate

  • If you don’t have a crisis communications plan, identify who’s authorized to communicate with employees, customers and vendors immediately. Designate specific people and identify backups to fill in if someone becomes ill with the coronavirus or is otherwise unavailable. No one else should release information about your company’s situation and plans.
  • Identify communications methods. How will you communicate with your audiences – emails, texts, instant messaging or other means?
  • Develop messaging for each audience. The messaging for your employees will likely be very different from the points you develop for your customers, for example.
  • Treat the messaging like a news story that addresses the five w’s (who, what, when, where, why) and how. For example, the “who” is your customers. You’ll share what your company is doing during the pandemic, when you’re taking action and where. You’ll also explain why you’re taking those steps. Most importantly, your audiences need to know how they’ll be affected and how you’ll address any changes as the outbreak evolves.
  • Prepare answers to anticipated questions. Employees, customers and vendors will likely have questions. Don’t ignore them and don’t guess at the answers. Put yourself in their shoes and think of what you’d want to know if you were them. Stick to the responses you’ve prepared. If someone asks you a question for which you’re not prepared, respond that you’ll investigate it and follow up later.
  • Develop protocols for updates. The circumstances around COVID-19 are changing at a moment’s notice. You might need to provide updates on the fly. Who will review and approve updates? Will someone need to edit them? How quickly can you get news out the door?

How to Communicate With Your Employees

  • Don’t ignore the elephant in the room. If you haven’t been communicating with your employees about the coronavirus outbreak, rest assured, they’re wondering why and are talking about it. Misinformation spreads faster than facts and you need to get ahead of it.
  • Assure employees that their jobs and your company will weather any disruptions to your business. Employees are understandably anxious about what the pandemic could mean for job security, their pay and the future of the company. They need to know that while the organization may experience challenges during this unprecedented event, it will support them and maintain operations as normally as possible.
  • Don’t make pie-in-the-sky promises. Two months ago, the coronavirus was primarily active only in China. Now, it’s a worldwide pandemic. No one knows what the coming months will bring. Avoid making predictions like “we’ll all be fine” or “in a couple months, this will all be behind us.”
  • Communicate early and often. Whether you provide daily, weekly or other updates about COVID-19 developments and how your company is responding to the outbreak, maintain open and honest communication. Lack of information, disinformation and communications that sound like they came from a public relations consultant (not throwing shade on the profession) sow distrust and skepticism.
  • Share how your organization will respond if an employee becomes ill. What steps will you take? Who will you notify and how? Keep in mind that medical privacy laws may restrict release of certain information.
  • Share accurate data from public health experts. Don’t share links and information from questionable sources. Reputable sources include your state’s health department, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization (WHO).

How to Communicate With Your Customers

  • Develop messaging that identifies and addresses your customers’ likely concerns. They want assurance they’ll get their products and services as expected. Let them know you’ve got a contingency plan if a significant outbreak occurs at your company. (If you don’t have a contingency plan, create one immediately.)
  • Update customers about any delays in processing, project completion, etc. Timely and consistent communication is key to keeping customers for the long term. Customers will likely understand any hiccups in the wake of the global pandemic if you explain changes and interruptions and what you’re doing to minimize them.
  • Share steps your business is taking to protect your customers from the virus. They need reassurance that you take their health and safety seriously and that you’re on top of the situation. For example, if your office is undergoing deep cleanings or if your employees are working remotely, share that information.
  • Provide a contact name, phone number and email address for customer questions. Consider creating a special phone number and/or email address for customers who want to know how your company is managing COVID-19. If they have nonbusiness-related questions, refer them to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How to Communicate With Your Vendors

  • Create messaging that identifies and addresses your vendors’ likely concerns. They want to know you’re operating as usual (as much as possible), that you’re paying your bills on time, who they should contact at your company if their main contacts become ill and where to send supplies if your employees are working remotely.
  • Share steps your company is taking to protect your vendors from the virus if they have contact with employees. Vendors who visit your office regularly during noncrisis times may want to limit or stop visits until the pandemic has ended. If they maintain in-person contact, even on a limited basis, reassure them you’re proactively addressing their health and well-being and explain the steps you’re taking.
  • Inform vendors of any changes that affect your business with them. If you need to cancel or change orders, notify them promptly.

Don’t Wait Until the Next Crisis to Create a Comprehensive Plan

How long the coronavirus pandemic will last and what the long-term ramifications for business will be is unclear. If your company doesn’t have a disaster plan or has an outdated plan, now is the time to fix that. The best thing you can do is to plan for the next crisis. Evaluate your communications, your business practices and procedures, your remote work policies and your technology stack and plan to sustain them.

When the next disaster or health crisis occurs – and it will – you want to be able to respond proactively.

How is your company managing communications during the coronavirus pandemic? Let us know in the comments below.

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