Internal comms during coronavirus: What works

Execs share their tips for communicating with staff about COVID-19 and WFH issues.

Chicago's nearly deserted Loop. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
Chicago's nearly deserted Loop. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Health and safety fears. Pandemic job layoffs. Work-from-home isolation. U.S. businesses are communicating to anxious workforces about complicated issues to keep them healthy, informed and motivated. 

Corporate comms executives shared their internal communications strategies with PRWeek for this unprecedented and growing crisis in the U.S. and globally — and what they’re finding works and what doesn’t. 

What works

Executives told PRWeek that setting up crisis command centers and central repositories for updated, fact-checked information about COVID-19 is critical. Frank Shaw, corporate VP of communications at Microsoft, calls it “a center of gravity.” 

“To ensure all teams responsible for communications were doing so from the same set of information, we set up a COVID-19 response Microsoft Teams channel and SharePoint site as the repository of truth,” writes Shaw on his LinkedIn page. The centralized messaging lets Microsoft communicators “see what was being said [and] which communications were going out,” Shaw says. 

In cases where the company anticipates strong external interest on a COVID-19 issue, Microsoft is creating “symmetry by posting the same email we sent to employees to our external news site, as we did when we moved to recommend employees work from home,” writes Shaw. 

Fellow tech giant Lenovo is running a “site leadership” system. Khaner Walker, the PC and tablet manufacturer’s global director of internal and external communications, says it functions as a “reference point for how we communicate.” 

Sales, product and global teams are all accessing the cross-functional tool so communications are consistent in tone, he says. The site leadership system was set up by colleagues in China. 

All of Lenovo’s COVID-19 communications are being collected in a single intranet portal. It includes “information on how Lenovo is helping out the communities we’re located in, along with new travel guidelines for specific countries and everything in between,” says Walker. It includes a page first shared with the communications department by an employee on how to disinfect mobile devices. 

For companies headquartered in Seattle, where the first documented case of coronavirus occurred in the U.S., “the challenge at the beginning was that we didn’t have benchmarks for what other U.S. companies were doing,” says Sarah Gavin, VP of global comms at Expedia. Fortunately, the company is a member of Challenge Seattle, run by former Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, who pulled together top companies in the area and leaders from the King County Health Department for daily briefings and discussions. 

“Through this group, we were able to align with other companies to announce new policies at the same time, which dramatically reduced employee anxiety about ‘X company is doing Y, why isn’t my company doing it?’” Gavin says.

Case in point: “Nearly all of us announced identical work-from-home policies with the same language within minutes of the county making a recommendation, which made a huge difference for our employees’ confidence that we knew what we were doing,” she says. 

Keep a cadence of credible info

Research from Edelman indicates that 63% of employees are looking to their employers for daily briefings about the virus, says Lisa Ross, U.S. COO and head of Edelman’s Washington, DC, office. Ross also leads the agency’s COVID-19 advisory team. 

“Employees are turning to business as a source of truth on the daily issues they’re facing,” she says. “So we’re counseling our clients to keep up a continual cadence of credible information.”

Continual means daily. As Ross points out, news is seemingly “changing hourly and folks’ work schedules are so erratic, a day could easily be missed. There is great fear of being disconnected, while simultaneously wanting a break.”

When it comes to delivery mechanisms, Edelman’s research finds most employees want information in an e-newsletter. Yet Ross says a company should leverage all of its internal channels, including intranets, social media and video feeds. 

“We learned quickly to over-communicate,” says Lenovo’s Walker. “Our employees very much wanted to hear directly from our leadership and on a variety of topics.” 

This ranges from concerns about business impact and the health and safety of their colleagues to how they can help their communities. Staff also want to know what the company is doing at the global level about the crisis as well as in individual offices.

Companies are also regularly taking the pulse of their workforces to ensure that all their concerns, worries and questions about COVID-19 are being addressed. 

Kurt DelBene, Microsoft’s chief digital officer and EVP of corporate strategy, sends out updates to the entire company as the crisis changes. The missives are informed by “pulse polls” to subsets of employees, which include open-ended questions on COVID-19, says Shaw. 

Chief people officer and HR EVP Kathleen Hogan also solicits feedback from managers about employee concerns that can be addressed in DelBene’s updates. 

Messaging for at-home employees

Given the myriad issues facing staff, Expedia uses “different executives who have played different roles in communicating to our employees,” says Gavin. 

This includes chairman Barry Diller, who has an “incredibly inspirational and confident” voice, to chief people officer Archana Sing, who has “brought a human element to how to handle this situation,” says Gavin. 

Expedia employees are also blogging about the challenges of working from home, such as how to avoid the pitfalls of remote work or handle kids who are out of school while trying to get work done. 

“We have a senior executive who homeschools five kids who blogged about his experience and has become a wonderful resource for really honest interactions,” notes Gavin.

To help people successfully work from home both logistically and emotionally, Expedia is also using online tools to help teams maintain camaraderie and personal connections in addition to business reasons. 

“We have created a number of Slack channels like WFH Parents Club, and people have formed other Slack channels organically to share photos of when their pets invade their video conference or for virtual happy hours,” she notes. “And for Pride, we are planning a whole social campaign where people will decorate the space behind where they do video conference calls and post them to social media with an Expedia Pride-related hashtag.” 

Gary Ross, president of Inside Comms, an internal communication training, coaching and consulting firm, says companies also need to remember to communicate about business initiatives and projects, as well as to celebrate success. 

“Teams are doing some extraordinary things under tough circumstances. Use your channels to relay success stories,” he says. “The recognition is important, and it will boost engagement and morale for everyone to see some good news coming out of their organization.”

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