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Communicating during a pandemic: What you need to know

by Monica Smith

May 28, 2020, 9:00 AM.

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FIU Professor Aileen Izquierdo underscores the need for clear communication and offers tips on how to navigate toward a comeback as South Florida begins its first phase of reopening.

While it is unclear what the fall may look like in South Florida with regard to the coronavirus, the preparation for social distancing, sanitizing and adherence to state regulations is at the top of the list for all organizations. One thing that must not be forgotten is what needs to be said to customers and employees, says Aileen Izquierdo, interim chair of the FIU Department of Communication.

Share what’s known and unknown

“It’s incredibly important for organizations and managers to share the facts they have, and it’s also important to share the facts they don’t have—or the information that is still pending,” 

Izquierdo explains. “There are instances where we just don’t have the answers yet.” 

Medical professionals are finding that to be the case, she expounds, as they don’t know what the long-term effects of COVID-19 will be or how it spreads. Information in the media, depending on the source, offers shifting nuances, she says. However, regardless of what’s happening in the news, transparent communication is powerful to help allay fears, maintain business, ensure loyalty and even show authentic compassion.

For example, later this month, all of the state university presidents are going to be presenting their tentative plans for the fall to the Board of Governors—and while we don’t know the complete answers, there is a sense of a timeline or action, which will trigger a series of other actions, she reveals.

“It doesn’t answer all of the questions about what the next semesters look  or feel like, but it provides us with that sneak-peek into what we might expect,” communicates Izquierdo.

Provide consistent messaging

Messaging must be consistent and offer an idea of what will come and the best way to do this is to stick with facts, Izquierdo states. She discussed how the coronavirus pandemic offers new realities unlike any other crisis seen in South Florida—hurricanes included. 

“Sometimes information might drip out because it is still a fluid situation,” she describes. While organizations consider the path to reopening, they must be cognizant of their crisis plan and continuity plans. The former helps you navigate the situation, while the latter helps you rebuild during a time when people are still fearful. Above all, silence is not an option.

Don’t mislead

“We’re all in this together. People will be loyal if they feel they have been treated fairly—even if they are hearing information that may not be exactly what they would prefer to hear,” affirms Izquierdo, who details how authenticity comes from the values and core of an organization. Misleading, vague statements are to be avoided to maintain trust. Also, businesses must maintain communication with municipalities so as not to be caught “flat-footed” and without a plan, advises Izquierdo. 

“Stay aware of the laws and rules, so when someone comes into your establishment, you have a clear guideline on how to engage. Be in-the-know and communicate based on that fact,” she recommends.

Internal communications

Just as important as external communications, internal communications with staff members will offer the stability needed to work through to the next reopening phases.

“Keep staff in the loop on next steps before they hear messages from anyone else,” Izquierdo suggests as this helps avoid internal conflicts and relieves concerns. Organizations with well-established internal communications will fare well because employees will offer solutions for day-to-day operations so management can make better decisions.

Preparation is key

While it is impossible to control all situations, organizations can practice their communication strategies and devise responses to “what if” scenarios while they connect with the entities necessary to support their comeback. Businesses can gain support from municipalities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Florida Department of Health, or experts within the organization, proposes Izquierdo, and this can help with day-to-day control measures while the business focuses on communicating messages to customers. 

While most organizations may not have been fully prepared for how to communicate during a pandemic, it is still possible to prepare responses.

“Spend time identifying the vulnerabilities that could negatively impact your organization and then figure out how to communicate with those inside and outside your organization,” encourages Izquierdo. “Even though it might create discomfort, it’s OK to say that you don’t have the answers to a question, and that you’re going to search for the answer, but it is equally important to follow-up, close the loop and communicate that answer, internally and externally.”

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