Employees Look to Their Companies for Coronavirus News

Nancy Cleeland By Nancy Cleeland March 18, 2020
woman searching for information on laptop

​Across the globe, workers are turning to their employers for credible news about the coronavirus, creating a "considerable new responsibility for the corporate sector," according to a survey on trust by public relations firm Edelman. In general, respondents want more trustworthy information and worry about fake news and the politicization of the pandemic.

The online survey was conducted March 6-10 and drew 1,000 responses from each of 10 countries, including the U.S. and the coronavirus hot spots of South Korea, Italy and Japan. "Given the present state of low trust, business will have to fill a further void, that of credible information," CEO Richard Edelman wrote about the results. "It is urgent that we enable fact-based decisions and allow our employees to feel part of a broad societal movement to fight this plague."

One of the most striking findings of the survey was that employees believe coronavirus information from their employers more than from the government, health companies and traditional media. Specifically, 63 percent of respondents believe information in an employer communication, compared to 58 percent for government websites and 51 percent for traditional media.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Also noteworthy: The majority of respondents in most countries, including the U.S., felt their employer was better prepared to deal with the health crisis than "my country." The exceptions were Germany and Canada.

Well over half of respondents in all countries—75 percent in the U.S.—felt that employers had a responsibility to protect their employees and ensure that they do not spread the virus into the community.

Be Clear, Even About the Unknowns

The survey results reinforce the importance of clear, consistent and frequent internal communications at a time when rumors flourish and facts change by the minute.

"Delivering timely, accurate and credible information to your employees is absolutely vital," said Ashley Conway, a former health official from Calvert County, Md., who teaches at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. "Even if you are just starting to develop a response plan, don't wait to let your staff know that you are concerned about COVID-19 and that you're working on it. If you aren't sure about something, admit that you don't know at this time."

In addition to information, Conway also recommended giving employees something to do. "Taking positive action is an antidote to fear," she said. "Ask employees to assist with cross-training and planning for widespread absences, encouraging others to stay home when sick, or implementing a messaging system to check in on sick or quarantined colleagues. Building and maintaining the trust of your employees is central to weathering any public health threat."

Chris Rosica, president of New Jersey-based Rosica Communications Strategies, recommended a reassuring short video from a top executive, followed by frequent updates by mail and e-mail. "Chief executives should remain visible and communicate regularly to bolster confidence," he said. "People panic when they feel a lack of control, and, if you are consistent, calming, and communicative, you will be supporting those who matter most and protecting your organization's best interests."

Employees Will Remember This Moment

The actions taken now can leave a lasting imprint on company culture and employee loyalty, said Harold Hardaway, chief executive officer of the Cardigan Communications Group, a branding and internal communications consultant.

"What folks will remember is how did you treat me in this moment? It's a great time to show who you are and how you value people," Hardaway said. Even if the news is uncertain or bad, employers need to be transparent and get ahead of events. "If you know you're going to have to shut down for two months, but the grocery store is hiring temp workers, you can communicate that. It's part of taking care of people."

Hardaway also suggested establishing a rhythm for communications, such as a daily 1 p.m. e-mail or text about operations, so that employees know what to expect. "That helps with the panic."

According to SocialChorus, a workforce communications platform whose large clients include Ford, Dow and Carnival, many employers are already filling the communications void. Nicole Alvino, co-founder and chief strategy officer, said 100 clients sent out 836 internal posts on the coronavirus in the past month, generating 800,000 comments from employees—a high rate of engagement.

The most popular posts covered travel updates, prevention measures and updated workforce protocols, along with reassuring messages from senior leadership about actions being taken. "It's never been more important for employers to meet employees where they are with critical information personalized to them so they feel informed, supported and connected," Alvino said. "Be the source of truth for your employees."



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