I’m not a health professional, so I can’t tell you much about dealing with COVID-19 but as a communications professional, I have some suggestions for organizations that want to communicate about the pandemic to their clients, partners, donors and other concerned parties.
1. Say something.
People are listening. Many people are getting fewer emails and have more time to read emails — and they are desperate for useful information.
If your organization is doing something to protect customers, staff and volunteers in the face of a global pandemic, let people know. Don’t let people wonder.
2. Talk about your customers, staff and volunteers (not about the organization).
This is not the time to pontificate about your adherence to your mission and vision or to throw a bunch of consultant/HR/legal jargon at worried people.
What they want to know, urgently, is how the pandemic will affect the delivery of your services to them and to other vulnerable stakeholders (including your staff and volunteers).
Avoid: Stilted, cliche-clogged statements like “Agency X remains keenly aware of its mission to deliver camping opportunities to our community’s youth…blah, blah.”
Instead: Say specifically what you are doing — where, why, and when: “To protect the children and volunteers who come to our programs, we are suspending operations as of <date>. We’re using this time to have health experts train our staff and establish cleaning procedures for our gym and vehicles.”
Avoid: Vague, generic promises like “In the coming weeks we will make a decision on how to proceed in this uncertain times…blah, blah.”
Instead: Be specific about who, what, when and how: “Our executive director, Jami Joy, will confer with leaders from our parent community (including the parent coaches) during the weekend to decide when we will reopen and what programs we’ll be able to offer. Jami and our board chair, Lee Fitz, will also work with state, city and local health officials. Our goal is to make an announcement on <date>.
3. Send links, not lists.
Give your readers links to where they can always find your most updated information.
I’m seeing newsletters filled with procedures, protocols, hours, etc., but those procedures are likely to change several times in the coming weeks. Rather than have all that quickly outdated information floating around (just waiting to be forwarded or reposted so it can misinform more people), include a link to the web page where you keep your updated information. That way, instead of needing to send out a new email every time some small detail about your response changes, all you will need to do is update the page on your website.
Example: Wondering how to submit paperwork while our office is closed? You’ll find a list of options here.
Another advantage of sending links rather than lists is that it will keep your email short, increasing the chance that people will actually read it.
4. Make sure people can contact you.
Assure people that you are open to input, including urgent reports of problems with your COVID-19 response system. Describe the contact process to them in a way that inspires confidence.
The generic contact page on your website will probably need to be updated with options for sending feedback or reporting emergencies. Again, use specifics such as the days/times your phone line is open, who in your organization is reading the email messages, and the timeframe people can expect for a response.
If your organization is a healthcare organization or related agency that is swamped with activity because of the pandemic, or your organization has people working remotely, and this may delay responses — say so. “We’re working on COVID-19 issues and may not be able to respond to non-emergency emails or calls as quickly as usual.” The idea is not to promise the impossible, but to manage expectations and reduce frustration.
5. Have the email come from an individual in the organization.
A message from a well-known leader (it doesn’t need to be the executive director or board chair) increases credibility. Plus, more people are likely to read it.
Messages from “us” may feel to the writer as through they are expressing a sense of teamwork. But in times of stress (like a life-threatening pandemic) the faceless “us” can come across to the reader as cold and institutional and reinforce the fear that “no one is taking responsibility.”
Doing It Right
To see an example of an organization that is meeting the pandemic challenge (both in terms of response and communicating about the response) check out the website for this Seattle restaurant.