Will You Be Able To Reach Your People During A Pandemic? Expert Advice On Communication Planning

  • 05 Apr 2018

Meg Nash, an emergency preparedness and public health expert, joins Danielle Ricci, Sr. Director of Marketing for AlertFind, to talk about how businesses can best communicate with their employees, vendors and customers during a pandemic.

In our upcoming webinar, she shares the best ways for organizations to create comprehensive communications strategies so they can ensure ongoing business operations.

Here are some highlights from their conversation:

Danielle Ricci: How can businesses start constructing their communications strategy for pandemics?

Meg Nash: One of the interesting things about pandemics is that they’re not a “no-notice” event. For a company, you’ve got multiple outcomes that you want to be looking for. So beyond just communicating about the pandemic, you want to look at your bottom line and determine how many people are able to keep working and when do you need to start thinking about communicating with employees. My recommendation is always start communicating as soon as you know something.

So I would look at what you want your employees to know and what’s that trigger going to be. A lot of times it’ll be an alert from the Centers for Disease Control. It may be an alert from the World Health Organization.

To create the plan, I always recommend that there are representatives not just from communications but also from your HR department and someone on the leadership level who really can get behind this and push it through.

Getting a representative group together that feels strongly about protecting employees and really having good representation from throughout the organization is key so that you’re not hit with people saying, “Nobody told us this was going on.”

Once you have your group, start thinking about all the areas you’ll need to cover with communications. You may also want to start talking about doing work from home plans to reduce the number of exposures somebody would have and looking at what do you want that business outcome to be.

Danielle Ricci: In terms of your emergency preparedness plan for pandemics, should it also address your customers as well as your suppliers and vendors?

Meg Nash: Absolutely. You want to know what the pandemic plan is for your key suppliers. Is their ability to provide materials to you going to be affected?

You also need to think about your customers and think through questions like, what if you have facilities that they’re used to being able to access, like retail, or you’re going to have a change of phone numbers for a customer service line, or maybe decrease onsite visits until the pandemic ends. You need to understand what those policies are as well so you can decide how you want to handle that as a company.

You’re certainly going to want to communicate things internally to your employees, but you’re also going to want to think about their families as well. You’re going to want to think about the people beyond just the typical employee. People like interns are not on the same roster as seasonal employees. You may have suppliers or vendors that work on your site that may not be on the typical distribution channels for communications, so think about how to reach them, too.

I would approach it two ways. I would be looking at it from the pure business aspect of, “How is it going to affect my ability for my business to function? What are the downstream implications?”

I’d also look at what exposures from the pandemic are you most concerned about? How is it spread? Once you know that, provide detailed and verifiable information from a reputable source, like the CDC or the WHO, on how to prevent those exposures.

Give them examples of what you want their behavior to be, whether it’s working from home or using the mobile hand sanitizer stations that are set up in the office.

It’s got to be something that is more of a campaign that the company supports with other activities, and all those activities should be communicated out as well so that everybody’s aware of those and can take advantage of them.

Danielle Ricci: How do we design those communications, whether they be alerts, employee, customer or vendor messages? How much of that can be pre-planned, and how do you approach that?

Meg Nash: So you want to start with what we call holding messages. You can create messages that say “We’re aware of the situation. We’re monitoring it,” so that everyone you’re communicating to knows that you are monitoring the situation. You’re reassuring them that this is something that you’re concerned about as an employer, as a business partner, and that it’s critical for you to maintain an awareness of the situation.

With pandemic flu, you’re going to have a good sense that something is coming. One of the biggest challenges with messaging is making sure the information you’re giving is the right message at the right time. So, from a pre-planning standpoint, I’d be less concerned about what those messages are actually going to be, and more focused on creating a communication plan around, “What information do I need to convey at what point?”

So decide as an organization that once the health threat reaches Level 3 on the World Health Organization’s pandemic scale, you’ll enact your communications plan so that you can let all of your partners, customers and employees know with a simple message like “We’re monitoring the situation.”

But from a pre-planning standpoint, I think you can have the framework of the plan, and then as the situation evolves you can send messages that are very specific to the health threat. If you know that it’s something that’s aerosolized, then airborne transmission is the biggest concern.

Your early communications are going to be specific to that threat. When pre-planning, it’s helpful to think about where you’ll direct people to look for more information. So if a company uses a certain channel – like an emergency notification system or Twitter – to communicate with their stakeholders, you can communicate and say, “Look for alerts on the ENS or monitor our Twitter channel for updates,” especially if you’re closing offices.

Another area that can be pre-planned would be wellness checks. You can poll your employees and ask them who’s sick or if they have sick family members. You can pre-plan those messages. Make sure that those get cleared through some sort of legal process, so that they’re vetted and you’re not getting personally identifiable, HIPAA-protected information over an open channel.

Danielle Ricci: What organizations should people monitor to understand what the emerging threats are? You mentioned the CDC and the WHO. Anywhere else?

Meg Nash: The World Health Organization has a pandemic alert with levels that is set up like the threat levels for our national security. There certainly are a list of organizations that a company can keep track of, but I would suggest building a relationship with whoever is your regional resource. Within the CDC, there’s an office called the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, and they have regional coordinators that are responsible for a certain territory. I would highly recommend that companies get in touch with that person and meet them now. A disaster is the wrong time to exchange business cards.

If a company wants to be more proactive, then they are going to need to look for things on their own. So looking at World Health Organization, there’s a free listserv called ProMED that you can sign up for.

That’s certainly one that you can look at and you’ll get notifications based on what you’re interested in, what’s going on around the world, what things may be developing. There are also flu reports that the CDC puts out. I don’t think they will for much longer, but it’s basically a situational report that is public information that companies can use to decide if there’s anything that needs to be done at that point.

Just keep an eye on those resources and get familiar with them before starting your planning or at least review your plan after you look at these resources.

One thing that really complicates a lot of it is if you’re an international corporation or have multiple sites. Everything we talked about so far is really focused specifically on a continental US perspective, which probably is short-sighted.

When you’re talking about a company that has locations all over the world, they need to shift their planning. It’s going to be a year-round process for them to evaluate the emerging threats and know which ones apply to which offices and especially when there’s interdependency between different locations.

When they’re developing a plan, it’s not going to be a “one-size, one-location” fits all. It’s really going to have to be specific. And in the emergency management world, we call it a hazard vulnerability analysis, which is just a fancy way of saying sizing up threats applied to which locations and then planning specifically for those threats.

And I think that applies to communications as well. This is another area where holding statements come in. If you know that there’s an inherent mosquito threat of vector-borne diseases like Zika, then you can write holding statements before mosquito season starts that get pushed out when needed. Or if you know that you’ve got an area that’s earthquake-prone, then you have standard messaging about well water instructions and things like that. So that might be another area where well-planned messaging may be very helpful.

Danielle Ricci: Could you also set up a hotline so that employees could get additional information?

Meg Nash: Yes. Think that through in advance and decide when you’re going to activate the hotline. Also make sure to remind employees about the different policies like working from home. One of the best things that you can do early on is remind employees of what policies are in place, what benefits are available to them, and push that information out to them.

Danielle Ricci: How can companies decide that? What are some questions that companies can ask to set up that secondary, remote working policy in the event of a pandemic?

Meg Nash: One of the things that you have to look at is how interdependent are the roles of your employees. If you’ve got people that are highly reliant on other people to do their jobs, it’s more difficult to figure out.

To facilitate working from home, you can make sure that everyone has web-based access and an account set up to access their work files.

A lot of times people think that they will have access to the files they need or the ability to communicate via video or audio conferencing. That may or may not be the case, but a lot of times, just that ability to interface in real time with people even if you’re all working remotely definitely helps.

It’s also a really good time to think about projects that have been back-burnered because of other priorities. A lot of times, side projects like white papers or competitor research can be given to people so that they are still contributing the company, but in a different way than what they do on a day-to-day basis.

Most of those decisions are going to need to come from a leadership level. They will have the understanding of what the value is to that business unit and can decide if it’s a good decision to have them working from home.

Now, the exception that you have is when somebody’s relying on the physical environment of the office to complete their job, like manufacturing, assembly or distribution. They can’t carry out their same roles. One thing that I’ve seen work well is that, under certain conditions, the company is going to have to decide whether it’s a doctor’s note or some verification that somebody is sick.

The company gives employees an additional 10 sick days to care for yourself or a family member that doesn’t count against your sick leave policy.

Any of those things are going to start at the leadership level. A lot of companies already do work from home. It really just depends on how much infrastructure your company has for people to support them if they work from home and how much control you have over their product and time spent on it.

Danielle Ricci: What if you’re in a situation where you have a very serious pandemic where people are actually dying? How do you approach that when 5 or 10 percent or more of your employees are passing away?

Meg Nash: Yes, that would be horrific. With the Spanish Flu, we saw that one of the best examples of prevention is social distancing. I would very quickly implement social distancing if I could not have people work from home. There gets to be a liability issue if you don’t let people work from home and they catch the flu there and end up passing away. That will be something for HR and the legal department to figure out what their exposure is and how they want to approach it.

From a business continuity standpoint, any time you’re going to have that much disruption to your workforce, the business is going to suffer. So times like that, I would look at whether we’re talking about communicating the number of people who are out sick. Schools often report that. Companies aren’t required to do that but if we had a serious pandemic, companies are going to have to get to the point where they’re reporting those numbers as well as the number of people that are ill or taking care of someone who’s sick.

Any kind of business continuity plan is going to look at loss of labor force. So immediately you would start prioritizing whatever tasks were absolutely critical to your company. You may look at downsizing the number of products you have, the number of services, what the effect is on all the contracts that you have in place. You’d have to reexamine every one of your contracts with your legal department to think about force majeure. And again, that has the downstream effects of dealing with suppliers and vendors.

I always recommend that the communication strategy include information about the support that the company is providing and the ways that people can request support and how people would make those requests. Do they go to their managers or fill out a form on their intranet? Outline what the process is and how they can do it.

This is going to be affecting everyone, so people are going to be inundated with communications from the news and with information coming in from every direction. It’s important that you decide as a company what services do you want to extend. Do you want to offer things like life insurance, short-term disability, long-term disability or death benefits? Are there policies in place so that people who need access to services can get them?

This goes back to communication and being able to understand what your employees are thinking and addressing them so that your employees understand that their employer is really doing their best to go above and beyond to protect them.

While it may be a business decision to maintain shareholder appreciation and stock values, it can be spun very easily to be a “here’s what we’re doing and here’s why we’re doing it” message so that people get the sense that you’ve got their back.

One of the big mistakes in communications is that companies put too much information out to people. So there’s a common saying in risk communications and crisis communications that you always tell people what you want them to do. You don’t tell them what you don’t want them to do because people only hear bits and pieces. And remember, information needs to be repeated at least three times for people to understand it.

So within your communication plan, information is going to be redundant. They may receive it on multiple channels, whether they get an alert through ENS, a text or a company email. Whatever it is, they’re going to have to see it multiple times and you’re going to have to be very clear and concise in what you want them to do and also what you’re doing for them so that the information sinks in.

At this point, you can also consider if you want to open up communications to employees’ families. If you have an employee that is very ill and can’t check email, give their family an alternative way to communicate with the company. For example, make sure that the employee’s husband knows how to get in touch with the right person at the company and knows what resources he may be able to get.

Danielle Ricci: Once you have this pandemic communications plan in place, how do you communicate that to the employees? Do you need to train with it like you would an evacuation drill?

Meg Nash: Probably not. Whoever is going to be generating messaging needs to have some level of crisis communications training and it can be as simple as understanding what the chain of command is for generating messaging, responding to incoming messaging, and when to push those messages out.

In terms of sharing the plan with employees, the best time to do this is when people aren’t thinking about it. If you do it in the middle of regular flu season, it’s like the teacher in the Charlie Brown comics. All you hear is “Wah, wah, wah, wah.”

Nobody’s paying attention. They’re sick to death of hearing about the flu. One thing I would suggest is rolling out your pandemics plan in conjunction with a company flu shot clinic. There are a lot of fun ways to exercise your plan.

One of my favorite exercises is getting people together and doing the Glo Germ, which is a liquid that you put on your hand like lotion and then tell everybody to go wash their hands. Then they look at it under a blacklight and see all the places they didn’t wash. That’s always a lot of fun and it makes people think about things in a different way but it’s engaging.

Hopefully companies could look back at this flu season and say, “Wow, we knew it was going to be bad. We didn’t realize how bad and it surprised us all how bad it was. It did make us think, if this happens again, what would we want to be able to provide to you?”

Certainly, take an opportunity to open up a dialogue with employees, vendors and suppliers where you invite people in for a day and run a half-day of talking about what the pandemic plan is, what the company’s intent is, what new resources you’ll be offering, etc. You can wrap this into a healthy living promotion so it becomes a little less scary.

I certainly wouldn’t do it online because everyone just clicks through it and this is really important, not only to the employees but to the business as well.

I built a course for an international conference on crisis communications for leaders. It looks at the failures and successes of communications in the course of different disasters and helps leaders ask themselves, “If I say this out loud, or I publish this on Twitter, I can see how someone may misconstrue that” or “I can see how that might not be the message I want to put out there.”

Also, create a dialogue with employees and ask them, “What do you want from us? What can we do to reassure you? What are the kinds of things that we can do to help?” Even that is an opportunity to not only listen but also have them become aware of what planning is going on.

As you finish that plan, it becomes something that a lot of them have contributed to and are more invested in. You get a lot more buy-in that way and you get a lot more from people that sometimes don’t get the opportunity to contribute. They represent a portion of your stakeholders that may have a different perspective that’s incredibly valuable when you’re looking for input on communicating and planning.

Danielle Ricci: How can organizations best use an emergency notification system in their communications?

Meg Nash: I think the ENS has come so far. It’s being used wider and wider. I think ENS really has the opportunity to provide that information at an instantaneous level with very little delay, and it really distributes the ability to push that information out. So rather than having one person at one computer that’s at the office that has to push it out, now anyone who’s been authorized can send it from a smartphone.

So when you start looking at continuity and redundancy of staff, the ENS really allows for that to happen. And it’s such a seamless integration with a lot of different aspects of the business, but it’s only natural that you would use this. Obviously, you can see the use for a short-term or the no-notice event.

But when you look at something that’s a longer crisis like a pandemic, you have a different set of uses. You can use it to keep people updated, to poll them to see if they’re sick or to send out a reminder in the morning, “Do you have a fever? Don’t come to work.”

You can really make it a two-way interaction when people are working from home or are relocated to another site to improve social distancing. It’s got a critical role.

Unfortunately, due to events like the Virginia Tech shooting, companies need the ability to push that information out. But looking at it as more of a business tool than an emergency tool, I think, will definitely reinforce the use of it and expand its role within an organization.

Join Meg and Danielle to learn more about creating effective communications for your employees, customers and suppliers in our next webinar, “Pandemics Readiness: How To Build Your Communications, Training Plan,” at 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, April 12.


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