Communicators Offer Guidance as Omicron Dominates Headlines

covid variant omicron in test tube being held by blue gloved hand

Public health entities and the media have raised the alarm around Omicron, which the World Health Organization dubbed a “variant of concern” Nov. 26.

The Wall Street Journal described an environment of “concern and confusion” in the corporate sphere, as executives schedule advisory meetings and consider reinstating safety measures. Communicators face the daunting challenge of what to tell employees and the public.

A measured approach

Kristie Kuhl, managing partner and global health practice leader at FINN Partners, notes “COVID news can be polarizing, and the panic and fatigue cycle is daunting.” Keeping in mind the weary populace, Katie Burke, chief people officer at HubSpot, told WSJ’s Chris Cutter that “it’s more important than ever that not everything be an immediate reaction, a panic situation…You’ve kind of got to save and conserve your energy and be thoughtful.”

In internal communication it’s important to demonstrate that “you are doing your due diligence to stay up to date on any and all new developments in order to keep employees safe,” says Aidan Willner, senior account supervisor, employee communications and social media manager at Cheer Partners.

Establish facts as the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report them, as well as local mandates or requirements, Willner adds. Communicate the work in progress, that “we are all still learning the details about the latest variant,” he adds. If new federal restrictions are instituted, let employees know that “as new information comes to light…updates will be sent out to align with changes.”

Doubling down on vaccine messaging

Public officials are doubling down on existing COVID recommendations. On LinkedIn, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison emphasized vaccination and booster shots for those eligible.

Morrison indicated that responding to variants is the new normal.

“We need to learn to live with this virus,” he said, noting that 13 variants of COVID-19 already have been identified.

Today (Nov. 29), US president Joe Biden said during an address that the variant was "cause for concern, not a cause for panic." Like Morrison, Biden leaned into booster shots for those eligible. He insisted the US response would not rely on “shutdowns or lockdowns, but…more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more.”

While urging vaccinations is a classic example of following the science, Kuhl urges PR pros to avoid the weeds.

“Communications professionals don’t need to get into the details of changes in the spike protein; that’s not what Americans want to hear.” Instead, “communicators can help society by finding trusted voices of all ages who can encourage vaccination and testing—regardless of evolving strains,” she says.

And communicators should avail themselves of trusted voices as well.

“Setting up alerts and notifications from trusted resources, based on your industry and location, is one way to prepare for this new normal,” notes Willner.

A mixed sense of urgency

Despite Morrison’s assurances, Australia today (Nov. 29) said it will delay reopening its borders for at least two weeks. Similar to early in the pandemic, Japan, Israel and Morocco imposed border closings, per The New York Times.

In the US, Dr. Anthony Fauci said yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” that Americans need to be prepared to do “anything and everything” to fight the new variant.  An adjacent wait-and-see tack muddled this urgent message. Fauci said it’s “too early to say” whether lockdowns or new mandates are likely or needed.

Like Morrison, he urged vaccination, boosters and masks, especially when traveling. A day later (Nov. 29), Fauci told “Good Morning America” the variant likely will “spread widely.”

(See "Seeking Alpha"’s excellent summary of Omicron news so far).

Advisory versus mandate

In New York City, a coronavirus epicenter early in the pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio is receiving blowback for wishy-washy messaging. He instituted a “mask advisory” during a Nov. 29 press briefing. New Yorkers are “encouraged” to wear a mask in indoor public settings, he said.

In a tweet, Noel Hidalgo, executive director of civic technology organization BetaNYC, expressed disappointment with the mayor. "Public health emergencies ain’t the weather. I’m very disappointed that the Mayor has chosen not to do a mask mandate," he tweeted.

Executives sound off

At pharmaceutical companies manufacturing the vaccine, preparedness messaging is coming from the C-suite. Moderna’s chief medical officer Paul Burton told the BBC that an Omicron-ready vaccine could be in place early next year.

"We should know about the ability of the current vaccine to provide protection in the next couple of weeks," Burton said on “The Andrew Marr Show.” Burton, too, doubled down on the importance of getting vaccinated with the currently available shot in the meantime.

Meanwhile, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told CNBC that he had a “very high level of confidence” that the company’s COVID treatment pill is effective against the Omicron variant.

Willner says employers should seize the opportunity to remind employees of their medical benefits and resources—such as whether a vaccine like Moderna’s or a treatment like Pfizer’s is covered—as “a critical step” to show employees “that their physical and mental health is a priority.”

Sophie Maerowitz is senior content manager at PRNEWS. Follow her @SophieMaerowitz.