Internal Communications Improving During COVID-19

By Kevin Sullivan

For too long internal communications has been treated like fine china – you bring it out only for special occasions.  Staff typically heard from leadership when there were mergers and acquisitions, company milestones and the occasional crisis.  

That’s how it was for much of my time at NBC in the early 2000s.  The comms team was overwhelmed by incoming requests and the need to excel at external communications.  Internal communications was nobody’s full-time job. When NBC merged with Universal that all changed. 

The integration of two media and entertainment powerhouses was both exciting and anxiety-producing for the staff, who had many questions. The need to communicate clearly and as transparently as possible was obvious.  In identifying the division of labor among the newly created NBC Universal communications team, our corporate leaders shrewdly tabbed Cindy Gardner from the Universal side to lead internal communications.  She did an exceptional job crafting a strategy that delivered consistent and helpful messages and answers from NBC Universal Chairman Bob Wright and other leaders.  The reaction from top to bottom was, “why haven’t we always done this?”

One of the workplace hallmarks of the COVID-19 era appears to be improved employee communications.  With most everyone working remotely, and concerned employees craving straightforward communication from their leaders, it has become a necessity.  Based on anecdotal evidence from my professional network and our clients, company leaders have responded.

The classic imperatives of effective internal communications are unchanged.  Kelly Womer Spong, a strategist who specializes in employee communications, defined it this way:  

Internal communications must be designed to help answer employees’ three burning questions:

1.     Where is the organization going and why?

2.     How does my team fit in?

3.     How do I contribute in my job?

In the time of COVID-19, it is more important than ever to be clear, direct and consistent in words and actions.  According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, 63% of employees want daily updates. This is personal for people.  Being transparent earns trust. 

“People want facts and they want them in real time,” said Jim Ylisela, head of Ragan Consulting Group. Leaders should emphasize facts and pull back the curtain on company processes as much as possible.  Inform employees of the specific steps you are taking to protect employees, preserve jobs  and stabilize the business.  Make your posts forward-looking as much as possible, previewing next steps.

While focusing on facts and specifics, remember to be human.  Demonstrate that you genuinely understand the concerns of the employees and the personal challenges they are facing. Willingly acknowledge what you don’t know, while indicating when you hope to be able to provide updated information or answers.

Ylisela says leaders should specifically let employees know how the company is protecting them from COVID-19.  Amazon did this effectively with a blog post, “How We’re Taking Care of Our Employees During COVID-19” that included plenty of details and an infographic.

Other tips for effective internal communications during COVID-19:

  • Employee communication can be message-driven, but today it’s most important to be authentic, and as personal and unscripted as possible.  Include video messages in your communications mix.
  • Create a regular cadence for your employee dispatches, if possible, on the same day each week and more regularly as needed.  Adopt a more informal, personal style.  One company has gotten terrific feedback and engagement from a weekly e-newsletter that follows a message from the boss with employee-created content such as recommendations for streaming shows to binge and favorite family recipes.
  • Listening needs to be a key component, with a mechanism in place to welcome suggestions and questions. 

As always in times of crisis, leaders are wise to remember it’s not about you.  It’s about your team.  Daycare may not be an issue for you, but it is for some of your staff.  Set a good example.  Demonstrate the behaviors you are calling for in your emails to them.  Encourage employees to stay connected and support each other. And remember, the best leaders have an optimistic vision, so strike a hopeful, unifying tone.

And, when we get to the other side of COVID-19, use your effective and consistent internal communication as part of the new normal -   just like the everyday dishes.