Communicating Risk during the Coronavirus Outbreak

Caught up in the wave of concern over the spread of coronavirus, many companies are quickly issuing corporate policies regarding business travel, conference attendance, work-from-home and other issues. Some of these policies are established after consulting with public health officials; others are seemingly based on whatever the news media seems to be shrilling.

The edicts issued from the C-suite communicate not only how the company is trying to minimize risk. They also communicate risk itself. In other words, the messages and how they are delivered tell employees something about their own risk of contracting the virus.

The spread of coronavirus is having a clear impact on global economies, particularly those dependent on tourism. It may be safe to say that the attention on coronavirus is also having an impact on productivity as people are distracted with the barrage of news and sometimes confusing information coming from (sometimes unreliable) sources.

Leaders who are trying to communicate risk run into several challenges. The first is that new information can be fluid and sometimes contradictory. The second is trying to strike a balance between protecting employees and maintaining productivity.

More than information

Risk communication is more than simply the distribution of information. Effective risk communication allows people to make informed decisions on how to protect themselves. Provide actionable methods of reducing  risk — including frequent hand-washing, coughing into a tissue or crook of an elbow, keeping your hands away from for your face.

This approach does one critical thing: it gives people agency over how to protect themselves

Creating a culture of trust

People are now less trusting of authorities when it comes to communicating risk. This is because information can be shifting, making it seem the communicators “don’t know what they’re talking about.” Also, the news media is a finally tuned hysteria machine, often lacking in journalists trained to report science and medicine. We also all know the quandary of social media as a source of irrational information about health.

In communicating risk to their employees, corporate leaders must be transparent in their communications. This can be done a variety of ways:

  • Living the message. Cognitive dissonance occurs when the behavior of a person differs from what that person is saying. In other words, if you say one thing but behave in a different way, people are more likely to trust your behavior. If a CEO says “everything is fine; get back to work,” but then chooses to work from home or cancels a business trip, this can lead to mistrust.
  • Providing references. People want to know how leaders arrive at corporate risk mitigation strategies and what they hope to achieve by implementing them. Include references to trustworthy experts, such as public health authority Web sites, as the basis of your strategy.
  • Advocating transparency. Leaders want to project a sense of authority and of “being in control” of the situation. It’s also important, though, to admit that information can change and sometimes we don’t have all the answers. 
  • Setting context. For experts, great risk is based on great hazards. For the general public, often, the perception of great risk is complex, based on a variety of psychological and cognitive processes. Empathize with the current fear and confusion, but also set context regarding the actual risk versus the perception.
  • Opening channels of communication. Risk communication is a dialogue, not a monologue. In other words, it is a two-way engagement. If a clinical or infectious disease expert is available (they’re quite busy, probably, but you can always ask), offer a video-based town hall meeting where people can submit questions. If that is not an option, provide a mechanism that allows people to engage in two-way communication.
  • Prioritizing safety. Communications, both in word and action, emphasize a commitment to the safety of employees, vendors, and customers. 

No one can say for sure how the current COVID-19 situation will evolve. Leaders can help their employees by being authentic and frequent in their communications about risk while they set their own policies for travel, meetings, and so on.

Further reading

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has this useful guide for risk communications.

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