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Crisis Communications Planning: COVID-19 and Organizational Preparedness

To say that this is a difficult time for our nation, the world and our organizations is an understatement. Never are our relationships with our stakeholders more important than they are today—during a time of uncertainty, fear and concern that has swept the globe.  As I write this, the World Health Organization (@WHO) reports 142,320 confirmed cases of covid-19 in 129 countries, with 5,388 deaths in what is now defined as a pandemic.

You have probably received messages from some of your vendors about the steps they are taking to protect their employees and customers.  Like me, you probably have noted that some messages are more reassuring than others.  And although you’ve probably heard this, too:  prepare, don’t panic.

If you have not already taken steps—both actions and communications—I encourage you to move swiftly to reassure employees, customers and all your important stakeholders of the actions you are taking to minimize the impact, to the best of your ability, of covid-19.


There are numerous sources of excellent, science-based information for your reference.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) @CDC is packed with valuable information to help you. We consider this site one of the best resources for the information needed to prepare, prevent and mitigate the effects of covid-19.  Guidelines to help keep the workforce safe,  tips to protect yourself, the latest updates, and how to prepare are among the resources on the site. I encourage you to review updates on a daily basis to help guide prudent decision-making.  Community mitigation guidelines are found here.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel to communicate effectively.  The CDC offers several free communication resources in  multiple languages for organizations, including handouts and posters, videos and guidelines for public health communicators.  

If your organization is international in scope, the World Health Organization (WHO) is another excellent source of science-backed information.

Unfortunately, there are those out there who seek to take advantage of unsuspecting individuals during this health crisis. The WHO has a page dedicated to scam alerts.

Key media outlets like The New York Times have made their covid-19 articles and data available free of charge. You might want to sign up for their daily update newsletter to stay abreast of covid-19 news. They have included a helpful covid-19 glossary of terms on their site.

The Wall Street Journal published a useful article titled “The Coronavirus and Your Job: What the Boss Can—and Can’t—Make You Do.”

Global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company says in its online briefing note, “ A range of outcomes is possible. Don’t assume the worst.” They are providing a full briefing that I found very informative, updated weekly. 


The U.S. President has declared a national emergency. What does that mean, exactly?  In the declaration of a national emergency, in this case under The Stafford Act, according to USA Today “the federal government can begin providing direct emergency medical care to citizens throughout the country. This could include the establishment of temporary hospitals, for example, to ease the nation’s projected shortage of intensive care beds. The government could also use the act to provide food, water, medicine and other supplies to Americans.”

“Public facilities where aid is being administered could be eligible for reimbursements, including hospitals, schools and custodial care facilities. Eligible facilities would get 75% of their costs reimbursed from the federal government and 25% from their respective states.” 

The President also declared a national emergency under the 1976 National Emergencies Act, which will allow the Department of Health and Human Services to waive or modify regulations for Medicare, Medicaid and other federal healthcare programs.

According to USA Today, “The president said the changes would including making it easier to offer tele-health services, so that patients don’t have to come to a doctor’s office in person for some consultations, waiving certain licensing requirements so that doctors can provide care across state lines and waiving capacity limits for hospitals.”


Your goals should include both readiness for the potential impact on your organization, building resilience of your team and effective business continuity. Ongoing discussions should consider:

  • What are the potential impacts on our business, and what are the key indicators we will use to measure them?
  • Do we have an effective alert system in place to stay atop local, regional and worldwide developments and take them into consideration in our daily decision making and communications?
  • Is our business continuity program sufficient to address this kind of crisis?  If not, what do we need to do now to shore it up?
  • Do we have vendors and business partners that we rely heavily on, and what is their plan to respond to covid-19? Are we in regular communication with our business partners? What are their contingency plans?
  • Are we prepared to keep the business on track if there is an outbreak among our employees? 
  • If our business is threatened, what percent of our employees can work from home? Do they have the right equipment and network access to telework?
  • If our business depends on employees being on-site, what protections do we need to provide for them to continue to come to work?  Do we have a contingency plan if there is an outbreak in our workplace(s)?
  • Do we have any large meetings or conferences planned in the near future?  What are the costs and benefits to postpone or cancel large meetings?


  • Do we have a crisis communications plan?  If yes, does it include an action plan for a widespread health emergency?
  • Who are our most important stakeholders?  Arguably, employees are your most important audience, followed by customers (however they are defined), vendors, investors/funding sources and other business partners.
    • Employees are most concerned about their own health and that of their loved ones. Are we providing the information they need on how they can protect themselves and their families?
    • Do we need to update/create/implement policies regarding working remotely, business travel, conferences and meetings, supply chain continuity, and other concerns?
    • Do we have an intranet, mass communication platform or other highly effective means of communicating quickly with our entire employee base? Are our contacts updated?
  • What do our communications strategies need to address?  Ideally, communications are addressing the actions you are taking to create awareness, protect people, instill confidence, build trust and enhance credibility. 
  • Who is responsible for communicating to each audience? What is the best vehicle to reach each audience quickly and effectively? How are we keeping leadership updated?
  • Key messages, talking points and Q&A should be prepared, approved and placed in the hands of all those who are responsible for communicating with various stakeholders.


Responding to this unprecedented situation can be daunting for any organization.  Collaboration and cooperation will help us all manage the crisis better.  Don’t hesitate to reach out if we can provide communications support during this crisis.  Meanwhile, please be safe, stay healthy, and be ready to respond with speed and confidence.

Warmest regards,

Deborah Hileman, SCMP

President and CEO

Institute for Crisis Management


Office (502) 587-0327

Cell (303) 880-8255

Picture of Deb Hileman, SCMP

Deb Hileman, SCMP

President and CEO, Institute for Crisis Management