PR considerations for “essential services” organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic

As millions of organizations across the country adapt to working remotely, others – those deemed essential services – have to continue operations as normal given the critical function they provide. For these organizations, this not only presents a litany of operational considerations, there are PR considerations as well for how to communicate to both their internal and external stakeholders throughout this crisis.

Adopt a “when, not if” mentality that your organization will have an employee test positive

As some organizations have already seen, even following all CDC and WHO guidelines isn’t enough to completely safeguard against COVID-19.

Yes, make it abundantly clear to your staff all the things being done to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but also be realistic that it’s plausible an employee could become infected. Communicating this will help take away the initial shock and allow your employees to return their focus to their work.

A significant part of restoring their focus is making sure they know the plan should an employee become infected, which, you know, presumes that you have such a plan. What should an employee do if they think they’ve been exposed to COVID-19? How will this be communicated to the staff? How will your facilities be sanitized? Will your site need to be temporarily shut down? How will you provide backup for affected individuals and/or facilities?

This isn’t an exhaustive list of questions to consider, but these are a few that should be answered and communicated to your staff so everyone is on the same page should someone fall ill.

Balance empathy toward employees’ fears with “the show must go on” messaging

Part of being an essential services organization means having to maintain your operations, no matter what might be going on in the world. There’s a tremendous amount of pride to be taken in this, something that’s worth emphasizing to your organization.

But you also have to acknowledge many still may be anxious about how their work makes them and their loved ones susceptible to COVID-19. Give them space to share these concerns, and more importantly, respond with answers and actions that affirm and address them.

In most cases, a positive case should be a non-story for the media – so long as you handle it appropriately

New cases of COVID-19 are being reported with increasing frequency. Depending on the prominence of your organization, it might merit some media attention that you have an employee who’s tested positive. However, so long as you can relay a high degree of compassion for those affected and competence in your handling of the situation, there isn’t much else to report.

The organizations that have seen a hit to their reputation are those that fumbled their response to inquiring reporters, most commonly in communicating little-to-no compassion toward their employees who are expected to carry on as if nothing happened.

“Why aren’t you helping flatten the curve?”

While fewer and fewer non-essential businesses have a choice to remain open, those that are face a growing chorus of critical social media comments for not helping flatten the curve. It might seem obvious that essential organizations would be immune to this backlash, but that’s not always the case.

For some, it might not be immediately apparent to certain individuals that their work is essential. For others, while their services are unanimously understood as critical, it isn’t necessarily true for all of their staff such as administrative and corporate employees. First, if you haven’t done so already, make accommodations for those who can work remotely to do so. Second, think through what your response should be for explaining why you still need certain employees to come to work and how their work is critical to the public’s wellbeing.

It’s truly admirable that so many organizations – first responders, public utilities, hospitals, grocers and logistics providers, to name a few – continue to serve despite the growing number of cases throughout the country, and that they will continue to remain open, no matter the disease’s trajectory. Thinking through these considerations can help your organization navigate these difficult times and help instill trust and confidence in staff and other stakeholders, both during and long after the crisis concludes.  

Greg Surber

Greg Surber, APR, is a public relations strategist through and through. He works on a variety of accounts, leading research projects and content strategies, but he also has extensive experience with more traditional PR efforts including national and trade media relations campaigns.

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