Tom Abbott, 44’s Head of Strategy, has spent much of the last week advising clients on crisis communications during the coronavirus outbreak. Here are his thoughts.

Crisis communications can be a huge challenge for internal communicators at the best of times. Employees expect quick information and answers even when organisations are under immense pressure.

But, we often think and plan for crisis communications as a quick event – it happens, then it’s over, we recover and then move on. The current issues around the coronavirus, however, present a different challenge. Organisations and communicators face a potential crisis that could last for weeks and months, not hours and days.

So how do you approach serious crisis communications that are both big bang and slow burn?

First steps in crisis communications

The speed with which coronavirus has spread has only really been matched by the speed of rumour and misinformation. As governments and health authorities tried to get to grips with the medical challenge, businesses had to understand the implications to their operations and their employees, while moving in to crisis communications mode often with limited or incorrect information.

If you haven’t written a crisis communications plan for coronavirus, get it down as soon as you can. The situation is rapidly changing, so you need a good foundation to work from.

At these times, it’s vital to understand who the authoritative voices are on the subject and give managers and employees clear guidance for crisis communications following the official advice. In the UK, the NHS provides robust and sensible guidance on the coronavirus and the UK Government has clear advice on how to proceed. Specific information for employers and businesses is also provided.

Your crisis communications plan needs to include clear line of sight to your decision makers around the Exec table and in HR or operations. Who is authorised to make decisions on policy or operational changes? And what happens if decision makers suddenly become unavailable due to illness?

Delays in decisions can cause real anxiety for employees who are looking for instruction and advice. Are you trusted to make decisions on behalf of senior leaders, or do you have routes to fast-track approval if needed?

Many of the actions you have to take in your crisis communications will involve other departments, such as HR and IT. Have you built strong connections with these key stakeholders and have you all agreed both on the crisis communication messages themselves and how these will be shared in a consistent and controlled way?

Clear, straightforward crisis communications

Your employees may find many of the policies that relate to homeworking, sick leave and pay, IT infrastructure or other areas difficult to understand. Publishing a clear, simple guide may give employees the reassurance they need to answer their own concerns.

Based on this guidance you should seek to give employees clear instructions via your crisis communications on what to do in different scenarios. Depending on your business, this could include:

  • What to do if they fall ill or have recently visited an area of high infection
  • What are the expectations should colleagues need to self-isolate? Will they be required to work from home, or take complete rest? Will they need to take IT or other equipment home?
  • How to use VPN networks, video conferencing or other services if they are not familiar with them
  • What to do if children or dependents have to stay at home
  • What documentation should they provide from medical professionals and what is the policy around sick pay?
  • Do you have employees with underlying medical issues who may need to take a different approach?
  • Are there considerations for employee on part-time contracts or temporary workers who may be concerned about loss of income?
  • What contact should they expect from their line managers should they need to self-isolate?
  • What actions the company is taking to help colleagues protect themselves from infection and what employees can do for themselves
  • Any updates to travel policy. For example, the use of public transport, visiting clients or events and travel to areas of high infection
  • Should company events go ahead and what approach should employees take to conferences, networking or other activities that involve large numbers of people?
  • Are there commercial implications that may affect company performance, and what actions are being taken to mitigate these?

Sustaining your crisis communications

Crisis communications over an extended period raises questions of how you sustain your effort.

Regular updates to employees on the latest position, restating good practice, company advice, and impacts on operations and commercial performance are all important parts of a robust crisis communications plan for your organisation. But as the internal communications lead, you need to plan for how you will sustain your own operations during the period.

  • Can you maintain crisis communications if one or more members of the team are unavailable? Or if you are the only IC resource in the business, what happens if you become ill?
  • Does more than one person understand vital processes for crisis communications such as how to publish or send messages to employees?
  • Do you rely on a small number of people to manage your crisis communications, and if so, can you plan in some rest and recovery time so they are not burned out by the effort?
  • If senior decision makers are unavailable, is there a back-up process for approving messages or crisis communications?
  • If a significant number of workers are at home, how can you get messages to them if they don’t have access to company channels? What do you do to equip line managers with regular information to cascade to employees?
  • As you manage crisis communications, what support do you need to maintain business as usual communications?
  • Do you need to bring additional resources on board to support your crisis communications – either agency support or temporary contractors?

Closing the crisis communications cycle

Any good crisis communications should incorporate actions for closing down the situation at the right time and how to re-establish normal working practice as quickly as possible.

While there may not be a formal end to the coronavirus outbreak, it is useful to bear in mind some post-crisis communications activity that can signal the transition to business as normal.

  • Take time to thank employee for their efforts during the crisis
  • Are there stories you can publish that celebrate how well colleagues responded?
  • Is there a commercial update on business performance and actions taken to address concerns?
  • Are there specific actions people can take to restart operations, especially if supply chain effects have meant a drop in production or operations
  • Have any lessons been learned during the crisis communications that can improve your future response to a crisis.

And finally, I’m more than happy to talk to anyone who needs a sounding board for their own crisis communications. Contact me via