Striking a Balance on Coronavirus Communications

The coronavirus outbreak presents unique challenges for business communicators as well as for government, public and private health organizations—and media.  The challenges are unique not only because they haven’t arisen before, but also because they call for a very fine balance among complex, competing—and often changing—story lines. 

Amid considerations for communicating with employees, customers, media or other stakeholders, here are a few points for business leaders to keep in mind.

First, remember that communicating about the COVID-19 virus is a balancing act. It’s important—and difficult—to get it right.  No one wants to stoke panic or misunderstanding.  Neither should company spokespeople ignore or downplay sincere and legitimate concerns among audiences.  

This isn’t just about downtime, money or reputation.  It’s about personal and public health, maybe even life and death. So be sure your messages are serious but not frightening.  Factual, but not cold; confident, but not cocky; re-assuring, but not smug.  Striking the right balance brings credibility.  And that serves everyone.

Second, the story keeps evolving, so today’s statements might need to change by tomorrow—or later today.  It’s important to realize that conditions often change quickly and that statements, actions or recommendations might also change to keep up with new information or better understanding. Flexibility is key.

Third, complex and changing technical stories are difficult for media to report and for viewers and readers to understand.  This is especially true for scientific topics like health and medicine, and more difficult amid a backdrop of constant political wrangling.  Using precise, yet everyday, conversational language is the best way to keep messages clear even when the science is hard to comprehend.  Analogies can help as long as the parallels are relevant.

Fourth, stick to what you know and don’t guess or speculate about what-ifs, rumors or gossip.  Be prepared for questions and know what you’re doing, in your organization.  Leave unrelated questions for others.

Finally, remember that emotions run high on this issue and the situation is different from place to place, or country to country.   Striking the right balance in your communications will show that you care, and that your business is doing its part to keep everyone safe. 

— David Klucsik