The next phase of COVID-19 communications: It’s time to listen
As Canadian mining companies rushed to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak to protect their workers and operations, many dusted off their crisis communications plans and realized they hadn’t accounted for a possible pandemic. And yet mining leaders have done an incredible job of figuring this out as they went, striking a balance between decisiveness and empathy as they helped guide their employees through massive upheaval.
In mining, of course, most people can’t just work from home. Many mines have scaled back production or transitioned to care-and-maintenance operations with a small number of staff. When we emerge from this crisis, demand is sure to surge, and mining companies that have maintained good relationships with their employees, as well as their customers, vendors and partners, will be in the best position to respond – so communication during this time is critical.
COVID-19 crisis communications best-practices checklist
Leaders play an important role in providing accurate information while also reassuring people and containing panic. Keeping employees, customers, vendors, and partners informed has to be a top priority as we all work to contain the virus. If you’re not already doing this, here are some best practices to consider:
1. Focus on empathy. Remember that your employees and stakeholders are primarily worried about themselves, their families and their communities, and then their colleagues and companies. Let them know that you understand their priorities and that you’re making business decisions accordingly.
2. Establish a centralized crisis-communications team: Creating a group with clear ownership for communications is important, and it should include the most senior people in your company. They should meet regularly to discuss what’s happening and adjust plans and tactics as needed. Make sure the organization knows that this group is the trusted source of information.
3. Assess your stakeholders: Every group has different interests and needs, and information is important to different people at different times. Figure out the best way to keep each group informed – so they can help you stay in business.
4. Maintain a Q&A list: Answer all of your employees’ questions honestly and openly and make those answers available somewhere that everyone can access. Update your company intranet with current information and FAQs, and advise your employees to consult it often.
5. Communicate frequently: Consider communicating with employees weekly, at a bare minimum, with the latest updates, to reach those who might not regularly consult other sources. If you have a lot to communicate, consider twice-a-week or daily communications. And mix up your media, using video whenever possible to make it more engaging and personal.
6. Encourage your people to stay connected and engaged: Use technology to bring your people together, encouraging them to connect with one another for support. Set the tone from the top that virtual happy hours, online events, conference call bingo, or video coffee meetings are actively supported.
7. Keep external stakeholders informed: Use your company webpage to update stakeholders as often as new information becomes available, and use email for updates that affect them directly. Address difficult topics sooner rather than later, approaching them from a position of transparency and care. This will help protect your relationships and even make them stronger as the crisis subsides.
8. Be proactive by preparing for various scenarios in advance: It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen in the next few weeks and months. But you can imagine possible scenarios (such as additional layoffs or closures) and develop messaging in advance, so you’ll be prepared should they become reality.
9. Live your brand values, but study your competitors and others: Sticking to your company values is important; your employees need to see that your actions and communications are consistent with those of the past. But you should also pay attention to what other companies are doing. As much as possible, aim to be an industry leader, but you can also learn a lot from other organizations.
Now is the time to listen and get personal
Now that we’re several weeks in, how do leadership communications need to evolve?
An uncertain future still looms. What do you say to your employees when you can’t predict what will happen?
The answer is that after weeks of communicating to employees, now is the time for mining leaders to listen. Your employees have legitimate fears about their own safety and that of their families and colleagues; thinking of going back to work – in confined spaces, isolated communities, or shared facilities where social distancing is impossible – could be raising anxieties in ways you haven’t anticipated.
I’ve been advising my clients to use the next couple of weeks to survey employees about how they’re feeling, what’s working and what’s not, and what help they need. Consider holding virtual coffee meetings with groups of ten to fifteen people, to let them see your concern and open yourself to theirs. Listen with compassion and put yourself in their shoes – and don’t be afraid to get personal. Ask them point-blank how they feel about venturing back into a regular work schedule. Find out what measures you can put in place to help them feel more comfortable and safe right now or when they are back at work.
Inspire your team and highlight the good you are doing
While you’re at it, find ways to inspire your teams. Your role may not have been to inspire people in the past, but these are different times. Particularly if this crisis goes on longer than hoped, your people will look to you for inspired leadership to help them get through it.
Be sure to highlight the good you’re doing. Some companies, like mining contracting and engineering firm Redpath Canada, have donated personal protective equipment (PPE) to local health authorities, while Vale Canada has launched a $1–million challenge to spur innovative COVID-19 solutions. If your company is doing something similar, share that information externally via the media, social media and your website, to demonstrate your community leadership. And share it internally, which will help employees feel good about where they work. Even better, solicit employees’ suggestions. People like to know their ideas are being heard and activated.
The fact is, we’re not likely to get an instant “all-clear”; instead, there will be a gradual, uneven transition. Through our collective efforts, infection rates will likely slow, and our healthcare system will find improved ways of managing and treating patients, but the virus is not expected to disappear completely. Many employees will understandably be left with anxiety about venturing back into any kind of “normal” working life. Employers need to tread carefully, respecting their employees’ individual situations and, importantly, their individual fears.
That’s why listening to your employees now is critical. As soon as this is over, you will need employees who are ready to jump back into their roles to support the economy’s and your business’s resurgence. It’s critical to seek their perspectives, to learn what they need to get through this, to inform your strategy and help to you pivot your approach as we all emerge into a new normal.
Andrea Lekushoff is president of Broad Reach Communications, a Toronto-based PR agency specializing in crisis and reputation management, corporate communications, brand building and executive profiling. She can be reached at [email protected]