Coronavirus and what it means for internal comms professionals

In spite of well-planned crisis comms, organisations are having to adapt to a fast-moving scenario that is well beyond what any could have anticipated. Nick Glover (Senior Communications Office, Crown Commercial Service), Andrew Harvey (Chief Executive, VMA Group) and Janette Wolf (chair of the IC Space editorial board and speechwriter to the Secretary of State for Education) share insights to help with COVID-19 adjustments.

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown communities and countries the world over into a tailspin as it threatens both life and livelihoods. Many of us are struggling to make sense of this new reality.

The role of internal comms to reassure and lead has never been more critical.

Government communicators will no doubt have swiftly put a crisis comms plan in place that is relevant to their needs and those they serve. But however well drilled, few can have been prepared for the scale and speed of what is now turning into the greatest threat to our way of life since the Second World War.

In the years ahead people will remember how their departments or organisation behaved during this crisis and poor behaviour and ineffectual communication will not be forgotten or forgiven. All the investment in mission statements or time spent promoting departmental values will ring hollow if organisations do not act responsibly now.

Staying connected

Assuming colleagues can access it from home – either on work laptops or phones or on their own kit – the intranet takes centre stage during a crisis.

It is here once the initial flurry of daily emails dies down that most people will be looking for updates on the latest news and how to manage during this unsettling time, and it is here that people will expect to find all the information they need.

Is your intranet being updated as often as it should be? Is the advice timely, accurate and prescient? And is it as accessible from home as you can make it?

As circumstances change and develop, often very rapidly, all organisations need to keep their people fully updated. Sometimes even saying that you have nothing new to say can have a calming effect. Whatever you do be as transparent as possible and prepared to answer difficult questions.

Communication has always been a two-way process and listening has never been so vital. When people are anxious, they need to know that someone is listening to them. As many of us are no longer physically working together many of the ways we would normally have done this are no longer an option.

Run daily team briefings between managers and teams – say 10 minutes at the start of each day – to discuss everyone’s objectives and to provide some welcome human interaction before the working day gets going.

Whatsapp groups are useful not just to keep in touch for work teams but can be used in lieu of the normal social exchanges people would have had by the watercooler or the coffee machine. You can reinforce this by making it clear it’s a chat space and not a work space.

Another tool to test morale and motivation is to poll your team. There are cheap or free-to-use tools like SurveyMonkey that you can use to do this and the information will show where there are any gaps in knowledge or potential pinch points. The anonymity this offers might encourage people to be more candid than they would otherwise be.

Make use of your leaders

There is a mantra that people want to get their information primarily from two main sources: their line manager and their chief executive. For most Civil Service departments, the latter will be a Permanent Secretary or director general; for other organisations, the Chief Executive. Encourage them to either write or – better – record a weekly blog or video diary and make them visible by live streaming an all staff address. All of these can offer desperately needed reassurance during this period of uncertainty.

Leaders can also use these moments to acknowledge the increased stress and workload that people may be experiencing and to thank everyone for the exceptional efforts that are being made.

All-staff virtual meets are where you can also handle questions from across your workforce. Those Q&As could be live, and use tools like to handle questions. Any key details arising from each briefing can be followed up in a group email.

Don’t change your tune

Workplace cultures have developed and grown over time, some over very many years. Much of that may have lapsed and a new culture is rapidly being established.

Do you want this? Good cultures are hard won. Are the messages you are circulating about coping with the crisis, consistent with your organisation’s aims and ethos? What you ask people to do now shouldn’t come as a surprise to them but should reinforce their understanding of what it is to be part of your particular team.

If coping with the crisis has taught us anything it is that working together becomes increasingly important. Now is not the time to be precious about your grid or your brand for instance. If you need materials check out what’s available from Cabinet Office, where you will find resources that will work with your own materials.

Be prepared to issue more information than you have previously done. Staff need to hear from a central team so make sure you have a group who are acting as guardians of the organisational voice.

Staying connected

Although we are now a predominantly tech-savvy society, with many people now working from home for part of the week, the sudden switch to total home working will have had a profound effect and many may find this disruptive or difficult to manage.

Not everyone may have the good set up at home you might have (or vice versa!).

For instance, there may be queries about IT kit. Does everyone have what they need to work from home successfully? Do they need to purchase any additional bits of equipment such as cables to connect their laptops to a television or monitor. And will they be able to claim this back on expenses if they do? Some organisations have given their staff a ‘picklist’ of essential items like monitors, mice and keyboards to order for delivery to their home, although these will of course belong to the organisation.

Don’t be afraid to challenge

We are all in uncharted territory at the moment and this means more stress for everyone, even those at the top we would normally look to for guidance. IC professionals should be sympathetic but also have the courage to challenge leaders in their organisations if something is not right. Now is the time for IC professionals to be confident in their knowledge and expertise and provide the very best counsel and advice to those key people which ultimately decide how their organisation responds.

Above all, be virtually “in and visible” not “invisible”. This is the time to show what you can do.

Looking ahead

It is important to remind ourselves that this crisis will end. We will come out the other side and one of the ways to return to normality as quickly as possible will be to take stock of what is happening now, both the good and the bad, so that we will eventually be able to learn from it. Planning ahead now will help reduce the long-term disruption of when the world returns to its normal axis.

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