Latest coronavirus communications strategies
across Asia Pacific
In the second of our action-response roundtables on the coronavirus outbreak, Andrews Partnership last week convened communications professionals from 24 different Asia Pacific organisations, to understand how the region’s practitioners are responding to the crisis.
Recap: Initial responses strategies in January
In our first meeting with the group in January, participants were unanimous about the critical success factors for communication during the first weeks of the outbreak. These were primarily:
- Implementing a “single source of truth” internally: Identifying one accessible platform or channel that every employee knows to be the most up-to-date information source – and abstracting coronavirus news from all other central channels. Most commonly, this single source of truth has been email due its universal reach, but some companies have been using MS Teams, Yammer, intranet microsites and other platforms effectively.
- Balancing the need for information with not overwhelming: The most consistently difficult task for communicators has been striking the right note between keeping employees informed/passing on new protocols, and not simply adding to the deluge of information, thereby overwhelming people rather than reassuring them.
What has changed in a week?
One week on, those same measures have continued to mature.
- A single voice at all levels: Message management becomes stronger the longer a crisis extends. Some practitioners now mention having to push the ‘single source of truth’ idea to the local level – i.e., stopping the stream of well-intentioned communications about coronavirus happening regionally or locally, generated by everyone from building management to line management.
- Moving beyond supportive words: Platitudes won’t help if you simply can’t get a facemask. With lives at stake and tensions high, there is a sense that staff increasingly demand to see that familiar cliché – of being ‘our most important asset’ – now being backed up with action. One insurance company has extended medical coverage for all staff as a gesture of support. Another sent customised boxes of critical goods to employees – masks, sanitation supplies, etc. – with a personalised message from the CEO. All practitioners stress how hard they have worked to reassure staff that homeworking and flex-working are not just supported but often encouraged, and issuing the necessary tools and technology to do so.
"We’ve had people around the region communicating things without checking in with anyone; building landlords sending helpful tips about how to stay safe. We found that surplus noise was doing more harm than good, so we’ve had to cut all that down too."
As the crisis has deepened and lengthened, we have also seen practitioners begin to address different areas of the communications landscape, or widen their focus:
- Protecting staff involves using non-traditional spheres of influence: For those with high numbers of customer-facing staff, such as retailers, employee support means not just communicating about flex-working or paying for a workplace cleaning. When social media rumours lead to panic buying, it pressurises and even imperils store staff. As a defined part of its internal communications strategy, therefore, one major retailer’s team has pivoted towards the media and government authorities behind the scenes – to get clarity on the facts of border controls, or to address rumours of shortages with publicised reassurance about supply levels – all in an effort to reassure its people internally.
- Tapping into other sources of outgoing information. One practitioner has found she has had to get closer to her global Investor Relations team in the US, after discovering they were fielding direct questions from investors about the impact on supply chains, business continuity, confidence, policy and practice, and the bottom line. Message management was not effective until that connection had been made.
- Asia comms coming to prominence multinationally: The worst times are, perversely, when communicators are at their most influential. We heard from a few Asia comms professionals that, over the last few weeks, they have now emerged as the leads on the company’s crisis communications globally, with coronavirus communications plans for the whole company being drafted by the Asia communications teams for global distribution; in some cases even agreement that any communication worldwide on coronavirus must be approved by Asia comms leads first.
- Legal entrenchments may be emerging: In business-to-business, the question of liability is beginning to rear its head. It is especially complex in professional services, where employees sometimes work at a double remove from their employer (i.e., outsourced to a client to serve its customers). We heard of one case where the end-customers are demanding signed travel histories from these contract staff, with a resulting lack of clarity about where liability lay. These are perhaps a foretaste of some of the more thorny communications challenges that will emerge for practitioners if the crisis continues to drag on.
"We’ve stressed very much that, while we are trying to minimise disruption to the business, we won’t compromise our values of safety and wellbeing and health of our staff."
What processes have been instituted?
Most companies have now established some form of regular communications process, with clear spheres of decision-making and calendarised output. Two examples from our group:
- FMCG multinational: Created a global task force of all management teams globally and is now bringing them together daily, using MS Teams, to update them. This provides one point of communication on the crisis for all managers and Corporate Affairs directors together. From this communication, local managers are then empowered to decide the best methods for communicating with teams locally. Recognising that different countries have different levels of technology, whatever is posted on that Teams site goes out as an email alert as well.
- Insurance multinational: Already operates a management structure with defined subcommittees for decision-making at each executive level – global corporate, regional and market. Here, the global executive subcommittee has decided most major policies around coronavirus applicable to the whole company (travel advisory, stop/go on major events, etc.). The Asia subcommittee has decided regional protocols. Market teams are having daily huddles – a one-hour phone call every morning, covering the latest local news. At the market level in China/Hong Kong, this has resulted in an output of two emails per week for employees — one ‘reassuring’ weekly message from local leadership; one from HR about policy and procedure.
- Email continues to be the most commonly used channel for communicating the latest news on coronavirus. Other notable formats include:
- Yammer: Several have turned to defined Yammer Groups, with the platform’s instant, visible, two-way communications structure (i.e., question and answer) allowing them to respond to worries quickly, and also get an effective pulse on simmering issues. The fact that Yammer group updates ping the email inboxes of members as well make it both a push and pull channel.
- Intranet microsites - several companies have now set up dedicated intranet sites providing the latest information on the outbreak, with regular postings of external news also making it an effective aggregation/filtering platform for staff.
- Screensavers – where these get pushed to employees’ desktops, they are being used as useful reminders of key messages.
- Specialist emergency communications platforms: As part of their BCM suite, several organisations have activated Everbridge, an application that can instantly send messages to all employees – voice, SMS, email – until notified that the receiver has accessed one format of the message. In last week’s roundtable, we heard an endorsement for SendWordNow, a similar emergency communications application.
- Feedback channel: Uncovering employee concerns – so you can respond quickly, deal with rumours and understand threats – is vital. One company has set up a dedicated ‘hotline’ email channel, monitored by HR, for raising questions confidentially about any lingering uncertainties. The team expected a few enquiries from the highly engaged; in fact the channel has been inundated, proving both a highly useful resource for handling employee concerns, and a steer to the team about what to proactively communicate.
"Our goal is to drive as much information as possible through our WeSetUp microsite on our intranet. All content we produce (including credible news content) goes through that. We can then discourage employee from overwhelming themselves. We’ve said we’ll discern for them what’s really critical to know."