How to Create a Communications Plan for Reopening

A major issue in the United States is whether or not to reopen businesses and areas that have been closed since the start of COVID-19. With certain areas hit harder than others, and economic impact taking a toll, some people are clamoring for a return to normal, while others believe waiting, watching and learning more about the virus is necessary.  

Aside from the actual process of reopening, restarting business constitutes many stakeholders, connected through numerous channels. Issues include everything from supply chains, public health and child care, for example.

First, before reopening, companies and organizations should consult government guidelines. Many state governors are negotiating reopening plans. The federal government, though, has yet to distribute a specific strategy.

With reopening touching a wide swath of industries—human resources, entertainment, healthcare, transportation—there is no one-size-fits-all communications strategy. But communicators will be the ones left holding the mic, responsible for over-communicating policies and practices to employees, customers and other stakeholders. 

Begin with a Return to Basics

Steven Rubenstein, president of the strategic communications firm RUBENSTEIN, and a member of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s New York Forward Reopening Advisory Board, believes the basics of PR will guide communicators. 

“While the circumstances are wildly different than in normal times, the rules of communications that have always applied, still apply now," he said. “Be honest and direct. Always have safety and care for your employees, teams, customers, and partners at the top of your list. Communicate clearly and often about what you are doing. Listen as much as you talk. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know something, there are so many things we all don’t know at this moment.”

Gaining Employee Trust

One of the first audiences that businesses looking to reopen should consider is employees. A good example of how not to communicate with employees is the meat packing industry. Instead of focusing on employee safety, businesses chose to spread word of a meat supply chain shortage, forcing public panic.

While President Donald Trump deemed food production “essential," keeping meat plants open didn't work because so many employees were sick. The virus spread throughout warehouses and communities. Without workers behind the doors, of course, production will slow. 

Employee Safety First

If and when employees return to offices, factories, schools or other industries, they need to be assured of their safety. That's number one. Before announcing a date for reopening a venue, employees should be contacted and given a detailed safety plan. 

"Inspiring confidence among employees, customers, consumers, suppliers and other key stakeholders will be grounded in whether people feel the organization is doing everything possible to protect the health and safety" stakeholders, a FleishmanHillard spokesperson advised. 

To address employees concerned about returning to a “new normal,” FleishmanHillard counsels PR pros to start building a communications strategy by listening. Conduct short surveys or virtual focus groups. This will allow employees to ask questions they need answered before they return. In addition, it gives employees a voice and helps them feel included in the process. 

How a company treats its employees will go a long way toward shaping consumer perception. Sixty-three percent of participants say the pandemic has changed their views of employers and employees, according to a recent TRUE Global Intelligence survey.

Gaining the Public Trust

A “return to normalcy” doesn’t look like it’s going to happen right away, regardless of what spaces are open, according to a survey from Mower.  Just one in five adults surveyed is interested in dining out, visiting a museum or working out at a gym when restrictions are lifted. Even fewer would be comfortable going to a sporting event or theme park. It’s going to take time before people truly feel comfortable not only taking vacations or using public transportation, but just going about their “normal” routines. 

Accordingly, FleishmanHillard is encouraging companies to adopt communications strategies with this staged reopening in mind.   

“Acknowledging those phases and the gradual return to full operations is really fundamental to setting the right expectations and demonstrating concern for public health,” a FleishmanHillard spokesperson said. 

Emphasizing the transition will not be linear is key. Reinfection, new safety requirements and future health directives will spur movement between the old and new normals. Setting that expectation in advance will develop a greater trust and transparency with your community. 

It's All in the Details

In addition, FleishmanHillard urges companies to communicate details and facts, particularly when it comes to cleaning, safety and disinfecting procedures.

Customers will want to know "what you are cleaning, when are you cleaning it, what are you using to clean it and how often,” the executive said. “They’ll also want your company to set the expectation for how your employees will interact with customers before they come to your facility. Will they stand 6 feet away? Are you expected to wear masks? Will employees wear masks? Will customers have to touch anything or exchange anything to complete transactions?”

Training employees to respond to customer questions with facts will be very important in establishing trust. Customers will want to know that PPE will be available for them or employees and use requirements. As always, customers will remember that you treated them with care and empathy. 

Three Rules

So what should communicators keep in mind as they create a process for distributing information?

FleishmanHillard offers these tips: 

  1. Make sure employees are comfortable and aware of what you are doing to ensure safety. If employees don’t believe in what you are doing, everyone they interact with will feel that skepticism.
  2. Tell people from the beginning that reopening will evolve – based on data that you and public health officials have. 
  3. Provide clear direction such as signs (where appropriate), modeled behavior from senior executives (social distancing, face masks, work from home when possible) and direction from managers to reinforce behaviors the company wants to see.

Above all, keep in mind that all communications plans should be created with empathy and compassion. Each stakeholder will have different concerns and perspectives. How an organization treats each individual and manages its reopening will become public knowledge and can have a lasting impact.