How to Respond to Media Inquiries About Employees Testing Positive

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[Editor's Note: The below is an edited version of guidance the law firm Goldberg Segalla sent to clients to handle coronavirus media inquiries. We thank Goldberg Segalla's media relations and content chief Aidan Ryan for providing it.]

Employers of all types should prepare to occupy the local or national media spotlight in the event that an employee tests positive. This doesn’t have to be damaging. While having an employee fall ill is of grave concern, it offers employer a chance to convey calm and control. In addition, they can communicate key messages about response measures. It is a moment to bolster credibility.Employers confronted with media inquiries should keep the following in mind:

Ensure you have a COVID-19 response team

By now, all companies and organizations ought to have created an internal team dedicated to monitoring news about COVID-19. In addition, the team typically makes decisions to ensure workplace safety as well as business continuity. It should have a PR pro attached to it as it communicates updates throughout the enterprise.

In the event of a media inquiry or the need to make a public statement, this responsibility should fall to a person with experience in issues management and strategic messaging. Since timeliness is critical, this person should be familiar with the organization’s COVID-19 response and decision-making.

Be transparent about what you know and don't, and how you’re controlling the situation

Dispense with the windup. Whether releasing a written statement or communicating verbally with reporters, avoid sharing generic information about the virus. Similarly, while there will be a place to discuss your organization’s response measures, this does not belong in the front-end of a statement.

Instead, plainly and directly confirm the case of infection. Explain how and when this knowledge reached your organization’s leadership. After that, lay out safety measures that the organization took in response to this case.

Anticipate and prepare answers for questions that reporters likely will ask

While it is understandable and acceptable for an organization to respond “We don’t know” to certain media questions, this should be due to legitimately missing or unverified information—not a spokesperson’s poor preparation.

If a spokesperson claims that the organization doesn’t know something, and later reporting reveals that the organization had knowledge about the subject, media attention will shift from the facts of the case to a perceived cover-up—even if a cover-up was never the organization’s intention.

Communicate COVID-19 response measures

Once you have answered the most pressing questions about the employee, active risks, and case-specific response measures, communicate key messages about your organization’s overall COVID-19 response measures.

You do not want coverage about a confirmed workplace illness to portray your organization as unprepared or worse, knocked on its heels. Instead, frame the case as a statistically probable eventuality that your leadership identified early and prepared to mitigate. Explain workplace safety and business continuity measures you have taken. This messaging may be nearly identical to communications you have released internally and to clients, patrons, or other stakeholders.

A media inquiry regarding a case of COVID-19 within your organization does not call for panic—and neither does it call for no comment. Adequate preparation can ensure that you satisfy the public’s need for information, protect your employees and stakeholders, avoid legal risks, and promote your credibility and organizational values.

Please consult with your legal counsel and, if necessary, a trained crisis communicator to discuss your organization’s COVID-19 media and PR plan.