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Communicating during an emerging health crisis: Coronavirus reported in Chicago

As the Coronavirus continues to be a hot topic of conversation around the globe, we sat down with Hawthorne president and CEO, Cynthia McCafferty, to discuss the nuances that companies must consider when communicating during an emerging health crisis.

1. What communications strategies can companies use to mitigate panic among their employees when a global health scare like the coronavirus is on the horizon?

First, companies should take the time to prepare for situations like this. It does not have to be a global emergency, a local outbreak of the flu could be just as disruptive and concerning to employees. That said, some important considerations:

Start the conversation. Employees should know how your business is responding to the situation before they have to ask.

Know the facts and do not stray from them. You should never speculate, and certainly not for situations like this that are constantly changing.

Rely on the experts. Your local health department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other organizations offer good resources to address questions.

Be understanding of your employees’ concerns. Someone with a compromised immune system may be much more concerned about traveling. As an employer, you need to have procedures in place to support all of your employees.

Identify alternative ways of doing business. This can be easier for some positions and companies than others, but identify ways that you can continue to do business while also protecting employees’ health. If working virtually is not an option, make sure to have appropriate protocols set up to limit employee exposure. If your company has people in the field, let them know how they can protect their health (and help them do that, for example, if someone has to routinely enter other people’s homes and offices, equip them with gloves, sanitizer, etc.).

2. During an emerging health crisis, how can companies maintain employee trust?

The best advice is to do the right thing. Be honest and transparent, while respecting employee privacy. Employees may begin to speculate or panic, so it is important to explain what your company is doing and why, as well as what your limitations might be. Don’t forget to be realistic and empathetic in your responses.

3. Has anything like this happened in your career as a PR professional? How did you handle it?

SARS in 2003 and H1N1 (aka bird flu) in 2009/2010 immediately come to mind as global health concerns, but the flu kills thousands each year and often prompts closure of schools and other public places. It is important to plan ahead, to be honest and accurate in your communications, and to recognize that when someone (or their family’s) health is at risk, the stakes are high so any communications need to take that into account.


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