March 9, 2020
These are extraordinary times. Like so often for those who work in the communications, public affairs or public policy fields, many of our clients are being tasked with roles and responsibilities regarding COVID-19 for which they have little experience or training. While the team at Greenbrier cannot provide advice about health and wellness, we are however, deeply experienced with crisis and preparing or managing the unexpected. Below we have assembled the most common questions we’re hearing from clients for your use in developing a COVID-19 communications strategy. Please give us a shout if you need a second set of eyes or want to talk through your response strategy.
-Lane & Matt
Should my company proactively communicate to our customers about COVID-19?
It depends. If your company has a duty to its customers to protect their safety and well-being, then yes, you should. If at any point your business has a physical interaction with a person, then it’s wise to proactively communicate about what you’re doing to protect them. Not only does this meet the “what would a good person do” standard, but it also deepens the trust between you and your customers, and potentially the media.
However, you should not proactively communicate with your customers about COVID-19 if what you’re doing could be viewed as opportunistic. For example, if you’re a software platform that has no physical interaction or impact with it’s customers then there’s little reason for you to proactively communicate about the situation.
Also, if you have a duty to your customers, but you’re not actually taking any preventative measures to ensure their health and safety (or are unsure/getting vague answers from your operations folks), then steer clear. The lone exception is if you’re taking pro-bono, supportive action that will have a direct impact on the crisis (for example, Zoom made conferences and remote working sessions free for those in need).
Do you have an example of a proactive communication we could send to our customers?
Yes—take a look at the bottom of this email for an example from Breather—the on demand working space and conference room startup (not a Greenbrier client, but we’re big fans). Not only were they one of the first companies to proactively communicate with their community, but their tone nicely balances pragmatism and showing genuine concern. Note they also added information about the issue to their FAQ, a great call by Breather.
What should we do if one of our employees comes into contact with COVID-19 or is diagnosed with it?
- The internal protocol of whether to evacuate your office or initiate a Work From Home policy, or otherwise, should be made in coordination with your city or county Department of Public Health.
- If there was any risk to the public, your customers or contractors, you have a duty, and the media will expect you to notify them.
- It’s likely that as the number of COVID-19 cases increases around the U.S. and Europe the media interest each time a company has a contact or confirmed case will diminish—however, we’re not yet at that point.
- Our recommendation is that if during the month of March your company is faced with this issue, proactively feed the news to a friendly reporter who can either break the story or include it in a roundup.
- The most concerning aspect of media coverage on this topic is the volume of misinformation, so it’s much better to shape the story with facts, detailing who and why people should be concerned, than hope the story doesn’t come out.
Our company is initiating a Work From Home policy, do we need to communicate it publicly?
- Do not communicate externally: if you have less than 500 employees globally and the office being closed is in a major city, it’s unlikely the media will be interested or notice. If you’re at a large company it’s likely trade press and/or mainstream and business press will be interested. If this is the case for your company, look at the next two options listed below.
- Proactive press: If the office being closed is one of the first in the region, regardless of number of employees, it’s appropriate to alert local press directly and offer a statement. Local press will likely find out and it’s better to frame the story proactively than risk misinformation in such a chaotic environment. Apply the same principles if you’re at a large company.
- Proactive social: If your leadership has a significant social media following then you can skip alerting the press directly and have them post the news and your reasoning. Salesforce did it well here.
Our company is not initiating a Work From Home policy, how do I respond to media questions asking why?
It seems like every company has either already discussed this issue among its leadership team or will this week. Many companies are following the guidance of their local or state government and only closing offices or restricting travel if advised by authorities. That’s a calm position from which to approach this crisis and provides an adequate defense to media inquiries if combined with confirmation that there have been no contacts or diagnoses of COVID-19 in your company or office.
You should expect that as more companies initiate Work From Home policies in your city or region, additional pressure about your company’s resistance to initiate such a policy will be met by media scrutiny.
Our CEO/Executive posted something controversial about COVID-19 on social media. How do we handle the backlash?
Aside from any disciplinary actions you may want to consider, the only way to limit the damage of a self-inflicted COVID-19 media cycle is with empathy, both from a communications and a supportive action standpoint. Consider donating your services or core product to a related cause. All proactive and reactive communications going forward should empathize with the ill, and elevate the health authorities, hospital systems and first responders who are fighting the outbreak. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently made a presumptuous comment about disease containment. On the other hand, Apple’s quarterly guidance to investors strikes the right tone.
The communications team has been tasked with developing the COVID-19 playbook for our company/employees/customers/contractors and I have no expertise in this space. Where do I get help?
The Greenbrier team has coordinated with several medical experts who advise companies on developing policies and strategies for crises such as COVID-19. If you’re in need of outside expertise, please let us know and we’ll put you in contact.
From: Bryan Murphy <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Wed, Mar 4, 2020 at 4:31 PM
Subject: Your safety, our priority
I’m writing today to let you know what Breather is doing to keep our customers and employees healthy and safe in response to the Coronavirus situation. Our team has created this plan following guidance from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
At this time, we are focused on:
- Enhancing our cleaning policies to ensure our customers are safe and healthy.
We already have a robust and regular cleaning schedule for both our meeting and office spaces. We’ve now implemented an enhanced cleaning and disinfecting process following guidance from the CDC and using EPA-approved products that are considered to be effective for reducing the risk of Coronavirus, paying special attention to frequently touched surfaces including tables, faucets, and doorknobs.
- Keeping our employees healthy and safe, both at our headquarters and in the field.
All Breather employees have been asked to follow CDC guidelines, which include washing their hands regularly, ensuring their work stations are clean, and staying home if they are sick. As a precaution, our operations associates have been provided with personal protective equipment to use when cleaning our spaces.
- Continuing to provide our customers with easy access to meeting and office space, especially in times when more private space is needed.
We know that it’s important to work somewhere you feel safe — and that has everything you need for a productive day. With increased demand for private workspace, we’ve made sure our 24/7 customer support team continues to be available to answer all your questions.
This is an evolving situation and as plans change, we will keep you updated as needed. We can all do our part to keep Breather spaces clean and safe. We ask that all Breather customers remain committed to washing your hands upon arriving at a space, disposing of any garbage like tissues or plastic cutlery, and staying home if you feel sick. You may cancel or change a reservation up until 2 hours before it begins — absolutely free of charge.
For more on our full Coronavirus policy, visit our help center.
36 West 25th, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10010
The Communications Guide to Layoffs To help businesses handle the unprecedented turmoil of our economy and navigate the very real and very fast impact, we’ve developed a series of articles detailing best practices regarding layoff communications: Part 1: The Reputational Risk of RIF Part 2: Execute a layoff narrative pivot Part 3: Layoff Communications Don’ts Part 4: Layoff Communications Do's Part 6: Managing Internal Layoff Communications Part 7: Greenbrier Live - RIF Communications 101