The increasing numbers of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in the UK present a challenge to employers. It is crucial that communication issues are considered alongside wider contingency planning.

Novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is a new strain of coronavirus first identified in Wuhan City, China, which is now spreading world-wide.

The majority of people who have been infected experience mild to moderate symptoms, but coronavirus can cause more severe symptoms in people with weakened immune systems, older people, and those with long-term health conditions.

A significant challenge

A Government report describes the COVID-19 as “a significant challenge to the entire world” and says that in the UK “it is possible that up to one-fifth of employees may be absent from work during peak weeks”. The advice for managing COVID-19 for most people will be self-isolation at home and over-the-counter medicines.

The information in this article is up to date at the time of writing, but this is a situation which is changing daily. The latest information and advice from the UK Government can be found here.

Employers should be considering now what the impact may be, particularly as the Government’s strategy could include encouraging homeworking and potentially cancelling events and public gatherings as the outbreak reaches its peak weeks.

As well as the practical and operational considerations it is important to think about communications issues.

Communication is crucial

The first point is that you should communicate. It may be tempting to keep contingency plans – or even the fact that you are contingency planning – between a few senior people in an organisation. However, your employees already know about coronavirus and many of them will be worried.

Telling them that you are contingency planning, and as appropriate what those plans are, will help to reassure them that you are taking the situation seriously. It is also very likely that you will need your employees’ co-operation to help you plan effectively. For example, if you are making arrangements to enable employees to work remotely from home in case they need to self-isolate.

There is some important information already available which responsible organisations should share with their people now. This includes the Government’s advice to contain and delay the spread of the virus.

Clear communications

As with any crisis situation it is crucial that the language you use is clear and unambiguous.

For example, if an office has to close for cleaning due to a suspected case of coronavirus, there is no advantage in explaining it away as ‘an incident’ or other vague wording, when it will be obvious what the real cause is.

It is also wise to avoid inflammatory language which may cause undue concern. Take your lead from the language and tone the Government is using.

Be prepared

Your communications plan should be based on your operational contingency plan.

There are various scenarios you may be planning for including cancelling events, implementing working from home for your employees or temporary office closures.

For each eventuality it is recommended that you prepare communications materials in advance and consider your audience and communications channels.

This may include:

  • Message for employees
  • Guidance for employees on how to deal with questions from customers, clients and stakeholders
  • E-shot for customers/suppliers
  • Press statement
  • Website statement
  • Social media statements
  • Signage for offices if they need to close temporarily

As part of your planning you should make sure that you have up to date contact details for relevant press and key stakeholders, as well as an agreed way to communicate with your employees during and out of office hours. However, to comply with GDPR you need to store this data securely.

Ensure that key people have access to update your website and social media channels remotely. It may be wise to train additional people to do this as a contingency.

COVID-19 gives organisations a lot to consider and plan for. However, taking action early and putting time and effort into planning your communications is time well spent. You may never need to put your plan into action, but if you do, the time spent preparing will allow you to respond quickly.

SBPR provides crisis communications, reputation management and public relations support to organisations across the South West and beyond.