How to setup the Covid-19 communications plan your business needs
As COVID-19 continues it is becoming yet another thing that businesses need to keep forever on the radar, forcing change and updates on a regular basis. Marta Kalas of Thomson Screening shares her advice on how businesses can introduce and manage a COVID-19 specific communication plan.
This can be an extra burden on business owners. After handling GDPR, getting as ready as we can for Brexit - now we also need to keep watching Covid related developments. These affect the bottom line, and also the day to day running of the business given the amount of work needed to ensure compliance with ever changing regulations and guidelines.
The easiest way to deal with this is to create a package of tools that will help you stay on top of the changes and the ever-increasing regulation and actions you need to take. For example, Thomson Screening has developed a toolkit to help business owners and SME managers work through what’s needed and how to action it. The toolkit provides training and sample documentation. The good news is, none of these activities is new; businesses do them all the time. What’s different is that now businesses need a specific Covid version.
A good communications plan will be the cornerstone of your successful management under COVID-19.
Your pre-Covid communications plan, if you already had one, will need to be adapted to be specific to the current situation. What will remain the same and what will be different? How can you prepare this, and carry out the work, with the minimum amount of re-inventing the wheel? How can you adapt what you already know and have to this ever-changing situation?
Let’s start with the basics. Any communications plan needs to include the following characteristics:
- Understanding your audience
- Listening actively
- Being clear about what you want to say (simply)
- Using the appropriate channel(s)
- Making sure your communication is timely.
Before we take each of these values in turn and work through how they need to be adapted, let’s add one step, at the very beginning: know your trusted sources of information!
The best sites to visit are the most important government websites. These are the first places you will need to check regularly. One of the difficulties at the moment is that there is so much conflicting, confusing or out of date information circulating. Go straight to the horse’s mouth, check the government website and Office of National statistics first.
Now, let’s take a look at each step and how it needs to be adapted for Covid-19:
1) Understanding your audience
Under the current circumstances your audience will be much more sensitive to different types of communication, and this will not necessarily be along the lines you may expect.
Essentially, we are talking about people’s ability to handle uncertainty and manage risk and this has nothing to do with their job, their level of education or even their age. Some people will be very risk averse, some will rely on science or authority, and some will be just the opposite.
Your communications plan needs to be mindful of this and cater to the different needs of your audience. It may need you to say the same thing from three different perspectives to cater to three different needs. The key to getting this right is understanding your audience and you can do this by listening actively.
2) Listen actively to your staff and customers
You need to listen and hear what your audience or different groups in the audience (whether internal or external to the business) are most concerned about. For example, are staff or customers worried about the rules around social distancing? or mask wearing?
You also need to show the audience that you are there, that you are listening, that the measures you are putting in place are to protect them and meet their needs. The actions you take need to be about them - and they need to understand that in your communications. Just acting, but not communicating, can lead to misunderstandings and a break-down in trust.
3) Have clarity about what you want to say
You don’t want people to come to work if they have symptoms - so be clear about this and what they should do in this situation. For example, if in doubt, stay home and phone or contact your team leader. You also need to ensure that everyone has all the contact details they will need if they are at home and can’t come to the office.
If you need customers to wear a mask at all times, or if they only need to wear them in certain areas - be clear about this. If areas within your place of business are off limits to external visitors, ensure they are obviously labelled.
Above all, your communications need to be clear, simple and, if necessary, repetitive. Just look at how the NHS is using simple words and lists of no more than three or four items. Don’t assume just because you’ve said it once, everyone has heard it or taken it on-board.
Avoid using abbreviations or acronyms. And remember, this is not a time to be original or funny.
Finally, it really helps to give some specific examples and little personal touches: show that you have considered the needs of disabled staff and customers, or perhaps those who rely on lipreading.
4) Use the appropriate channels
These days there are dozens of communications channels from your intranet to your website, from Twitter to WhatsApp, from newsletters to window signage. Choose the right platforms for the audience (e.g. staff, customers or suppliers) and for the message. Make use of as many channels as you can and be consistent with your messages. Normally you'd be using a slightly different approach in each channel, but in your Covid-19 related communications, it is really important that there is no misunderstanding.
Start by creating a list of all possible “channels”: website, newsletter, sign on the door, customer service team, training materials, Twitter feed, LinkedIn post, everything you can think of.
Use templates as much as possible as this will save time and keep the communications consistent. Ensure anyone involved in any form of comms (from PR to social media, from web editor, to marketing flyers, from poster designs to advertising) know what your Covid-19 messaging is and when and how to include it.
5) Make your communication timely
This is where Covid-19 related communications get really tricky: things change very fast (or they may stay the same), which makes it very difficult to plan. You want to make sure you have not left out of date information on any of your communications, and you want to be sure you are always in line with the most recent government or Public Health guidelines. Yet, you cannot spend every hour, every day, checking and updating everything.
Fortunately, there are a couple of tricks and tips you can use. These are not new, they should be familiar to you, and in Covid-19 related messaging they are essential:
- In electronic communications (websites, newsletters, chats, etc.) use links directly to the relevant government websites. (see list above)
- Used shared file systems (e.g. Google Drive, One Drive or Dropbox) for templates and drafts
- Have a log of where these templates are used, to make sure you don’t miss one of them
- It is an extra few minutes to get everything in one place when you start, but it will pay dividends when you suddenly need to change something.
With your communication system set up, it’s simple to set a weekly reminder in your diary, to check that everything is still relevant and correct. The when the Government announces a change, or your local public health team notifies you about something important you can make the update quickly and easily and make sure your staff, customers and suppliers receive the communication they need.
Marta Kalas is co-founder of Thomson Screening, developers of the Thomson Covid-19 Test Manager software platform that enables testing providers to scale irrespective of where, how and what test is carried out. Functions include automated reporting at local and national level for bodies including Public Health, Community Health and Employers with data reporting into other systems, as required.
A separate module using questionnaire and risk assessment methodology enables local residents to self-report COVID-19 symptoms with automated reporting to local (or national) Public Health and the ability to automatically push out messaging specific to the individual with symptoms.
Thomson Covid-19 Test Manager is designed to adapt rapidly to fast changing requirements and is fully scalable. The Innovate UK grant enables Thomson Screening to utilise investments made in the core functionality of the company’s products used in the NHS, especially its SchoolScreener Imms product, to rapidly repurpose and deploy the software.