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Tips for Communicating to Employees During a Disaster

As fears of an imminent global flu pandemic begin to subside, now is the time for corporate communicators to reflect and ask key questions: Were we prepared? Did we communicate effectively with our employees?

As we know from September 11, Hurricane Katrina, and, most recently, the influenza A (H1N1) virus, it is not a matter of if a disaster or crisis will strike, but when. Since 2001, companies have made great strides in strengthening their business continuity plans, and many of these plans were put to the test in the past week. As corporate communicators, we need to ensure that communications is a key element of these plans.

In fact, we've learned that the core of a good crisis plan is a robust internal communications strategy. Effective employee communication is critical to making certain that business continues to operate smoothly and employees are well-informed, supported and reassured throughout a crisis.

Odds are that employees will be at work when a disaster occurs, so with this in mind, consider the following steps when communicating internally:

  • Let employees know that you have an emergency response plan and explain how it affects them individually.
  • Establish a clear protocol and pattern for communication. For example, at the start of the flu outbreak, we notified disaster contacts at Business Roundtable member companies that as long as the World Health Organization pandemic alert remained at four or above, we would issue a daily e-mail update at 4 PM.
  • Identify credible sources – such as the Centers for Disease Control – and cite them consistently so employees know they are receiving accurate and up-to-date information.
  • Use a variety of communication channels to provide information and updates such as bulletin boards, intranet pages, and e-mail.
  • Reiterate policies on flexible working arrangements, including telecommuting and staggered shifts.
  • Alert employees of any policy changes regarding business travel.

After the disaster passes, take the time to talk to employees about their fears and concerns, and what worked and what companies could have done better in terms of communication. Incorporate their feedback into the next version of your company's plan.

How companies perform in a tense environment can greatly influence how employees view them. The recent influenza A (H1N1) virus is both a wake-up call and opportunity for communications professionals to reevaluate whether they have the proper playbook at the ready before the next disaster strikes.

Johanna Schneider is executive director, external relations, at the Business Roundtable.

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