Coronavirus internal communicators

Coronavirus: A guide for internal communicators

March 3, 2020

A guide for internal communicators:
Dealing with the reality and fears about coronavirus

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak is presenting unique challenges for companies around the globe as they work to ensure the health and safety of employees while managing the business impact. The internal communications team plays a vital role in helping employees stay informed, remain focused and feel supported. Here are some ideas and actions to consider.

Rely on the experts

The World Health Organization (WHO) and U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) websites include a wealth of information about the virus and recommendations. As you work to keep employees informed about the outbreak and any impacts on the company and their community, leverage content from these websites and from the websites of governmental health organizations in other countries where your company operates.

  • Use the information on the WHO and CDC sites to explain company decisions that are related to the outbreak.
  • Include links to these sites in all communications.

Put facts front and center

Consider providing regular updates on the COVID-19 outbreak, even if there are no new company decisions to communicate. There is a lot of misinformation in the public domain; providing accurate information and frequent updates can help dispel misinformation.

If your company makes a decision that affects employees in just one country or region, commit to making what you communicate to those employees available to all employees. As with other challenges, being open and transparent can help reduce fear and speculation; it also demonstrates the company’s care and concern for its employees, regardless of where they are in the world.

Educate your managers so they are prepared to discuss the company’s policies and answer questions from employees. And beyond articles and emails, use visuals to capture attention and remind employees of steps they can take to avoid the virus and what to do if they are concerned about potential exposure. Options might include portal messages, splash pages, digital signage, enterprise social channels, team communication vehicles, table tents and posters in your café and break rooms—even mailers sent to employees’ homes. Both the WHO and the CDC have downloadable posters and other visuals you can leverage.

Lead with health and well-being

The COVID-19 outbreak is first and foremost a humanitarian issue. As you keep employees informed, take the opportunity to focus on the human aspect—reinforce your company’s commitment to the health and well-being of your employees. You can easily anchor the information you provide about COVID-19, along with any guidelines or restrictions, in the company’s concern for employees’ health. You can also remind employees of proactive strategies for staying healthy and keeping their immune systems strong, such as exercise, eating a healthy diet and taking advantage of company wellness resources.

The rampant news coverage, concerns about friends and family, and fears about the impact on personal finances can also shake employees’ emotional health. Remind your team of the employee assistance program resources or other related benefits they can tap into for support if they are feeling overwhelmed or experiencing fear or anxiety as a result of the outbreak.

Shift behaviors

Examine your company culture and values—the unspoken messages employees receive every day about how they should behave and what’s rewarded. Does your company encourage employees to push through and get the job done, even if they are not feeling well? One of the key guidelines from the CDC and WHO is to stay home when experiencing symptoms. Recognize that regardless of what you say, employees who feel ill will not stay home if the unwritten rule is “get the job done no matter what.”  Work with leaders and your Human Resources team to identify any mixed messages and then align on a strategy to shift behavior.

Provide tools and support for virtual work

Consider how travel restrictions or work from home requirements may affect employees. Many employees across your company might have never worked virtually before. If a government mandates that employees in a given area work from home for a period of time, your employees and managers might be thrust into a radically new experience. Provide tips for employees on how to successfully work from home and for managers on managing a dispersed team.

Make sure all employees who are required to work from home have access to the company’s collaboration tools including video calling, instant messaging and document sharing. Take advantage of the circumstances to remind all employees about these tools and reinforce the importance of virtual collaboration.

Double down on diversity and inclusion

Although COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China, it is an equal opportunity virus: people of Chinese or other Asian descent are not more susceptible to the virus than anyone else. However, fear can lead some to scapegoat or blame others. It is possible that this may crop up in your company. Use the outbreak as an opportunity to reinforce your company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Make sure employees and managers understand how to report or raise a concern.

Be sure that the messages in your communications about COVID-19 do not use words or phrases that could be viewed as hurtful by any group of employees or that might inadvertently normalize xenophobia. Pay attention to the photos or images you use in your communications: although the virus started in China, relying primarily on photos of Asian people or of Chinese cities in your communications can send an unintended signal.

Stay on top of employee concerns

As you communicate policy decisions in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, be sure that employee needs and perspectives are taken into account. Have a process for regularly monitoring employee sentiment to stay on top of hot spots and emerging concerns. For instance:

  • Will the company reimburse employees for work tools or expenses they incur when working from home?
  • How will the company handle employees whose jobs cannot be done offsite, if there is a requirement that employees not come into the workplace for a period of time?
  • If an employee has respiratory symptoms, will the company reimburse him or her for the cost of a COVID-19 screening test if insurance will not cover it?
  • What guidance should we provide employees whose jobs require them to enter a customer’s home or place of business? Should we establish a protocol with questions to ask about symptoms in the household or office? Should they be issued personal protective equipment?
  • If a company culture has traditionally encouraged employees to come to work even when they are ill, what new policies or messaging needs to be considered in light of COVID-19?

Plan ahead

Think through potential scenarios with the company’s crisis team. Agree ahead of time how the company will respond, create core messaging and prepare drafts of communications. Consider communicating in advance what steps the company will take and what it will ask of employees if someone within the company is exposed to or infected with the virus. This can help create an atmosphere of trust and understanding.

Recognize that whatever you communicate inside is likely to be communicated outside. Ensure you are having ongoing discussions with Human Resources, Security, Real Estate and Facilities, Public Relations, business leaders and sales leaders so that communication with all audiences is consistent and all teams are prepared with appropriate responses.

Where to turn for help

As you navigate this crisis, be sure to take a step back to ensure that you are communicating with compassion and empathy, grounded in an understanding of our shared humanity. Employees will long remember if their organization guided them through this crisis with calm and supportive leadership. Know that the ROI team is here to help you during this time. Please reach out if you need support with your crisis communication strategy or messaging.


Catherine Forman ROI Internal Communication Agency Employee.
Catherine Forman

Vice President

With a deep expertise in change management and employee engagement, Catherine helps manage largescale, complex strategic projects for our clients. As an avid rock climber, Catherine approaches her work as she does her climbing - always with an eye on the next move. Her expertise has made her a valuable contributor to ROI since 2003.

Lesli Gee ROI Internal Communication Agency Employee.
Lesli Gee

Executive Vice President

A founding member of ROI, Lesli is an expert at change management and HR comms expert with more than two decades helping executives design and execute large-scale change initiatives to strengthen organizational culture, streamline processes and improve performance. A 27-time marathon runner and charity fundraiser, she has helped numerous Fortune 500 companies achieve their business goals.