Internal Communications Can Make or Break Brand Reputation During Coronavirus Crisis

warehouse worker looking up order

As employees adjust to their new reality during the coronavirus outbreak, they look to employers to provide clear and consistent messaging regarding not only the day-to-day, but what’s coming next. This places great responsibility on company leadership and internal communications officers, who balance on a tightrope of trust as layoffs and reduced hours become the norm. 

Employees can be a company’s biggest source of advocates and influencers. Treat them right and provide them with guidance, and they will share the love, not only with friends and family, but on social media and beyond, strengthening brand reputation organically. 

During this unprecedented crisis, many employees are facing huge discrepancies in the way companies are communicating. Some may see detailed videos and daily updates going out to customers on social media or through email, while they wait to hear when their offices will close and begin remote work. Many may be concerned with the financial fate of the organization. Some may worry about job security, or if they should report to work should a family member test positive for coronavirus. Whatever the question may be, PR pros’ advice across the board is to over-communicate and put employees first. A well-informed employee can steer brand perception in a positive direction despite a shaky future.

Put Your People First

It’s no secret that the airline industry will be one of the hardest hit during this crisis. So United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz and president Scott Kirby delivered a letter to employees saying they would give up their salaries through the end of June. Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian went a similar route, forgoing salary for the next six months, after discovering the company would have to cut capacity by 40 percent. 

Outside of the airline industry, other CEOs are following suit. On March 16, PRNEWS reported on the COVID CEO Pledge, encouraging senior management in the creative and communications services industries to take pay cuts over the next several months to avoid layoffs and keep necessary funds in reserve for staffing. Other CEOs and corporate leaders like Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA basketball team, are ensuring hourly workers and staff are paid regardless of the cancellation of the season. Many other team owners in the sports world have followed his lead. 

As David Grabert, global head of marketing and communications for GroupM, posted on LinkedIn, “For better or worse, how your company responds to the coronavirus may well have a lasting impact on your brand. When a company is in a position to do something extraordinary, communications can help the company stand out as a corporate citizen.”

And it's not just large companies that can make statements. Smaller companies also have the ability to reach out to their employees and make a real difference. Grabert said the same technology is available to every company, regardless of size, and mentioned several platforms which may help get out messaging.

"Back in 2017, my employer, GroupM, was impacted by a malware attack that temporarily disabled our communications systems," he said. "WhatsApp proved to be an effective tool for communications within groups comprised of team members from across the globe. WhatsApp or similar tools could work very well for a small business with 100 employees or less who need to stay in touch during a crisis. Also, for one-way updates, a small business like a restaurant might easily decide to use space on its website to deliver information to its employees as well as its customers."

Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

For Grabert, who grew up outside of New Orleans, his experience working with cable/telecommunications provider Cox Communications during the tragedy shaped his crisis communications thinking for years to come. 

“Seeing the people suffer was personal,” Grabert said. “This made me all the prouder of how my then-employer responded. I remember well that the biggest concern for decision makers at Cox’s Atlanta headquarters was the safety and well being of our New Orleans employees and their family members.”

Grabert said Cox established hotlines for displaced employees who had evacuated across the country to connect with the company to let them know if they were alright, where they were and what they needed. Cox also set up a disaster relief fund to help impacted employees rebuild their lives, and there was an outpouring of support for the fund from Cox employees across the country. Cox also donated millions of dollars in free advertising time to run New Orleans tourism ads across the country to help spur recovery, showing its commitment to the area.

The result? Cox is now known not only by its loyal employees and customers, but the entire telecommunications industry as an organization that “cares about its people and communities.”

Effective Leadership Communications

It’s not just the message, but the method in which you communicate to employees that matters. A simple email may not suffice for a very large announcement. Leaders may get messages more effectively across through a livestream, town hall or fireside chat. Grabert said some leaders may also get their best ideas for communication from listening.

"Communicating with employees right now it not just about giving updates (good or bad)," he said. "In my experience leading communications through many different types of crises at different organizations, great ideas will often be sourced from your people. So, people leaders need to listen."

Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago, Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership, shared her thoughts on communicating messages with the National Press Club Journalism Institute in its daily Covering Coronavirus newsletter. Keep these in mind when transmitting important communication to employees. 

  • Be user-friendly in this TL;DR world—lengthy, gray copy loses eyeballs. 
  • Tell recipients right at the top what the message contains. A bullet point index is a good option.
  • Write with authority, humanity and clarity.
  • Maintain an FAQ mindset. As you write, anticipate the “what does this really mean to me?” questions from employees.
  • Remember that people under stress don’t always process information well. If it’s important information, send it multiple times in multiple messages.
  • In addition to information, people need encouragement and inspiration. Don’t hesitate to send brief messages of support to your team.