Predicted Swine Flu Outbreaks Will Test Crisis Plans

Mexico Swine Flu This summer, while most companies are struggling to stay afloat due to recession woes, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is quietly preparing for what could be the final straw for many small and medium businesses – a severe swine flu outbreak.

And this time around, employee communicators will have to deal with much bigger problems than finding a tactful way to explain that the workplace isn’t a daycare center for kids whose schools have closed due to the flu.

According to several news sources, the CDC is predicting that up to 40% of the U.S. population will become infected with swine flu this fall.  That’s right, up to 40%.

A recent survey by the Harvard School of Public Health found that three out of five Americans believe that a there will be a widespread swine flu outbreak this fall, and 90% would be willing to avoid shopping malls, restaurants, movie theaters, public transportation, etc., for an extended period of time — up to two weeks — if instructed to do so by public health officials.

That’s bad news for those businesses and their employees.

Even if the swine flu outbreak fails to reach the predicted severity, most companies will have to deal with some level of absenteeism this fall, and some will find themselves having to decentralize their operations, with employees working from home.

My advice to communicators:  don’t treat these predictions as hyperbole.  Take time now to review your business continuity and crisis communications plans.  Reach out to your counterparts in HR and make sure there is a policy in place for swine flu-related call-outs.  Set up a phone number that your employees can call into to hear a recorded message about building closures and alternate work locations.  Most importantly, let your employees know that the company is taking these preparations seriously.

As they say in the disaster business, the secret to surviving a crisis is to “plan for the worst, and hope for the best.”

Advertisements

Communicating to Your Employees during a Crisis

emergency lightThe Metro rail collision in Washington, D.C. on Monday serves as a sober reminder that a crisis can occur anytime, anywhere.  In a matter of seconds, a business can be plunged into crisis mode, with little time to strategize about how notify their employees and update them on recovery plans.

Communicators owe it to themselves — and to their employees — to prepare for a crisis before being confronted with one.

Say you don’t have a crisis communications plan and you need to pull one together.  Where do you start?  At minimum, a good communication plan, regardless of type or size of the business, includes four basic elements:

  • a checklist that accounts for all audiences and vehicles
  • well-defined roles and responsibilities
  • a resource/phone list, and
  • a collection of samples

The checklist documents the top-line steps that need to be addressed when communicating to employees.  Examples:  When do you notify executives and employees?  How will you announce the crisis to your employees (voicemail, PA announcement, email, intranet, text message, Twitter, etc.)?  Will the switchboard/receptionist need to be notified and coached on how to handle calls?  How frequently will you provide status updates to your employees?

Roles and responsibilities must be defined ahead of time, and redundancy built in just in case the person responsible for the task is unavailable.  Examples:  Who will serve as the key internal spokesperson?  Who approves the content of the announcements?  Who can send a text/email/voicemail to all employees?  Who can post to the intranet?  Who is responsible for updating the executive team?

Having an up-to-date list of available resources and phone numbers will save critical minutes during a crisis.  The list should include: home and cell numbers for all executives and management team members; emergency contact info for all employees; home and cell numbers for key members of the IT support team; phone and fax numbers for all locations; Red Cross and other relief agencies, etc.  In addition, I recommend that medium to large companies establish an inbound phone number for employees to call for status updates and building closure information.

Finally, it’s always a good idea to have a collection of samples and templates on hand.  Examples:  scripts for the operator/receptionist; internal holding statements and updates; voice mail and text messages; talking points for managers, etc.  Depending on the emergency, you may find that you need to rely on communications novices to help work through your checklist.  In that case, the templates will come in quite handy.

Don’t put off crisis communications planning because it seems like an insurmountable task. There are a variety of good crisis communications resources available online:

In addition, many trade associations have created crisis planning resources to help their members.  Call their member services number or check out the Web site.  Or, you can check with your local Chamber of Commerce; many of them offer this type of resource to their members.

Plan ahead.  You’ll be glad you did.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.