Coronavirus and internal communications – you are not alone!

6 April 2020 | James Blake

Just a few short months ago, most of us hadn’t heard of coronavirus. The terms ‘self-isolation’ and ‘furloughed’ would have meant very little, and we certainly would never have dreamt that we would be worrying about the family supply of toilet paper.

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What started out as an issue affecting countries far away is now keeping us in lockdown, it’s cleared our offices and factory floors, it’s ravaging our economy and threatening to burst open our healthcare systems. It’s keeping us apart from our families and is taking people’s lives too soon.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of what we’re living through, especially when there appears to be no definitive end in sight and when messages and advice seem to change almost by the hour.

A shared experience

But there are some silver linings on those dark clouds. As internal communicators, you’re giving your people vital information, a chance to feel connected with your business and their colleagues and in many cases, real hope.

The challenges and pressure you may be feeling right now are being shared by internal communications colleagues everywhere. You are not alone!

While we may be using different channels and tools to speak to our organisation’s teams, the ethos behind what we are doing is the same. It’s about providing clear, concise information, editing out rumour and conjecture and ensuring people have what they need to feel supported and cared for, even if the message is sometimes a difficult one to hear.

These genuinely are unprecedented times.

“The sheer urgency and scale of coronavirus means there isn’t a guidebook or a proforma document to follow,” says IBM’s Laura Storey, who’s part of the team managing global HR communications at the tech giant.

“We’ve had to adjust our priorities. COVID-19 communications have become a daily requirement, and we’ve quickly built a cadence plan so employees can see continuity in who’s communicating when around the virus.

“But the business-as-usual work continues too – IBM is open for business with the vast majority of our global workforce now working remotely, and this means regular work has to be managed alongside.

“We have global and local crisis management teams but usually what they deal with is time-boxed, whether that’s a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, it has a timeline, and things get back to normal,” she added.

“We don’t have that now, and we’re having to learn and be creative, carrying on the drumbeat but without swamping people with information.

“I’ve never known internal communications to play such a central role before. If anyone doubted the true worth of internal comms then right now, they are being proved wrong!”

Huge challenges

For many internal communication professionals, the past few weeks and months have posed the biggest challenge of their careers.

“That’s certainly something we’ve heard from our members,” says Rebecca Nicholls, Events and Awards Manager at the IoIC.

“This sort of event has never happened before – you can have the best business continuity plans, but this is unprecedented.

“It’s definitely showing just how important internal communications is.”

Lisa, an Internal Communications Manager for a global company based in the south of England, is in a team of one. She says it’s been hectic, but support from her colleagues has been forthcoming.

“It’s been all hands to the pump, and we are having to manage with the resources we have,” she says.

“We have incident teams at site level, and we have Gold, Silver and Bronze response teams which are working well, and information is being cascaded. It’s the frequency of our communications which has really changed, and collectively I think we are all checking in with each other.”

It’s a similar story with another Internal Communications Manager in Government based in the south. Given the organisation’s clientele, it has a robust and tested communications and business continuity crisis plan in place, but that doesn’t mean the current crisis hasn’t been challenging.

“It’s been hectic,” he said.

“The internal comms team is very small, but because we have experience and we know the business and our audience, and we already work so closely with the executive team and other key departments, we’ve been able to prioritise, act, resolve and deliver.”

Tech and tactics

While frequency, tone and the subject matter of communications has obviously been shaped by the coronavirus outbreak, it’s also driven the need to explore new channels and new approaches to get important messages across.

Coronavirus accelerated the IoIC’s plans to move much of its event content online, with coronavirus and homeworking webinars, exploring both technology and wellbeing, as well as online training webinars proving popular, Rebecca said.

Lisa says they have used SMS messaging for the first time to tell their teams to work from home where possible. She has also run extraordinary global calls with the CEO. Normally run every quarter, the events were open to all employees prompting several questions and issues to be covered.

She’s set up Microsoft Teams site too to connect those now working remotely, allowing people to share hints and tips about working from home, and reports that it’s working well.

Collaboration hub Slack has proved useful during the crisis for IBM, especially as a way for employees to ask senior leaders questions and share concerns.

“Digital platforms are coming to the fore more and more,” Laura says. “We ran an ‘Ask Me Anything’ session on Slack about the virus with our Chief Medical Officer, and it exploded. We had 1,000s of users rather than 50 so digital tools are being repurposed to suit new requirements.”

Video messaging is crucial, too – it can be shared quickly and can feel authentic and provide that face to face connectivity.

“Our CEO usually has film crews to do her videos, but now she’s doing iPhone videos and addresses from her home – it’s very authentic and honest,” Laura added.

WhatsApp has also proved to be an excellent tool for keeping in touch with teams. In contrast, other IoIC members in the south have found sending more frequent messaging through existing channels to be effective in delivering coronavirus comms.

The Internal Communications Manager in Government said the organisation’s intranet was still a popular source of information.

“It’s seen over 90,000 page views of COVID-19 related information in the last two weeks,” he said. “Staff are reading and returning, and we’ve also used organisation-wide emails for vital and urgent messages. Plus, we have an enterprise social network, where employees can post their own content.

“Many staff have been using this to share their experiences, hints and tips for productive home working and staff wellbeing, and we’ve increased our use of video, including short messages from the Chief Executive.

“They have proved to be extremely well received by staff and are excellent morale boosters.”

Thankfully it appears that across the region, most senior leaders are being visible and taking the responsibility to lead in the crisis while taking on advice from their Internal Communications Managers.

Bringing people together

There’s plenty of Government information and guidelines from other organisations about coronavirus out there, but people need that connection with their employer.

“They want to hear it from their employer because they trust them and feel close to them,” says Laura from IBM, “it’s a connection.

“I think people have realised that we don’t have all the answers, but there’s a real sense of comradeship and community.

“As internal communicators, we won’t always get it right for everyone every time, but we’ll keep learning, refining and iterating.

“It’s about delivering what people need to hear, reaching out and learning from our peers – there’s bound to be initiatives we can share.”

 

*The IoIC has launched a new survey aimed at informing the future of internal communications. Taking part in the survey, which takes less than five minutes, will help the organisation understand how members are tackling the challenges posed by coronavirus and what channels and practices are proving effective. “Even though this time is challenging the survey will really shine a light on just how vital internal communications is,” says IoIC Director, Jen Sproul.

“To get through this crisis, it will be fundamental in helping businesses communicate to protect health and to protect livelihoods but also to help organisations when we come out of this and to guide them into what will be a new normal.

“Things will change fundamentally – seeing workforces move into remote working will show even more how Internal Communications is that pivotal glue that keeps that informed connectiveness among workforces.

“Not just now but also when we get to the other side and see what people at work will want and expect.

“The survey will help us demonstrate to Government what internal communicators are doing to help us through this pandemic,” she added.

“We’re also facilitating virtual coffee catch-ups. The North East has started already – it’s about reaching out informally to others in your region to have a chat and see how they’re coping. We can facilitate that if anyone fancies doing the first one in the south.”