Regulators and health professionals worldwide are asking all of us to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, businesses are at risk. But, more importantly, lives are at risk. Business communications and associated operations must reflect that now more than ever.

The top three things to remember when you communicate inside and outside your organization are:

1) Health and safety come first.

Health and safety must be your top line message if your employees and customers are going to believe that you take it seriously. People are worried and the crisis has just begun. Avoid explaining points about health and safety in terms of business concerns. If you have to address business concerns, put the health and safety message first.

Make sure your social media posts and other messages don’t switch from an earnest health-and-safety message to a business-as-usual pitch about your services. This could come across as tone deaf.

2) Prioritize long-term reputation over short-term business outcomes.

Be as transparent as you can. Customers and partners should understand if you or one of your employees becomes infected. However, they will not understand if your company knows that information and doesn’t share it or isn’t prepared to handle it.

Mind the say-do-gap. Make sure to check regularly that your business actions are consistent with your message. That may mean delaying a product launch you’ve been anticipating until the crisis is over (assuming the new product does not assist the community in need). If your communications rightly emphasize the need to aid your employees and your community, your actions should match that – even if that comes at a short-term cost.

3) Focus on people. Now more than ever, put yourself in the shoes of your reader, whether that’s a reporter, a customer, an employee or their family. When relevant, mention in external messaging what you’re doing to help internal staff (and vice versa).

Of course, you should also follow classic crisis communications principles.

  • Deliver timely, consistent communications. The situation is evolving rapidly, and your audiences may want updates. Make sure your messages set expectations for frequency of updates and avoid unexplained long lags. At the same time, be sensitive to overloading your audience.
  • But, don’t guess or predict. There is enormous pressure to reassure your employees, suppliers, customers and partners. But, do not be tempted to make guesses or predictions. There’s a good chance you’ll be contradicted by fast-changing facts, and that can badly damage your credibility. Instead, sympathize with the need to be informed, and point or link to credible, official sources of information like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization and state and local government announcements about closures and restrictions.
  • Brevity and clarity. Keep your messages as short and clear as you can. Use headings to break up information so audiences can skim. Avoid jargon and irrelevant information. Long walls of text can be frustrating to pick through when a reader needs information now. That’s especially true if someone is reading the message on the small screen of a smartphone.
  • Plan ahead for communicating about possible scenarios. There’s a good chance someone in your business is going to get COVID-19. If you haven’t already done so, you may have to institute a telework policy or even to suspend operations. Plan out these messages with your advisors. Look ahead and have these messages in reserve so you can add necessary details when the time comes, instead of scrambling to get the whole message together.

This is a difficult time for everyone, but it is also an opportunity for businesses to demonstrate their values and show heart. The COVID-19 pandemic affects us all. Now is a time to help people, and to put community before business.