My 88-year-old mother lives in a Milwaukee retirement center. A nursing home shares entrances, hallways, staff, visitors, and volunteers. The last time I visited my mom was in July, an outdoor and socially distanced interaction punctuated by the sound of traffic and masked-muffled conversation. I’ve not felt her hug for almost a year now.
She is blessed to be surrounded by an exemplary facility staff that by happenstance is led by my brother-in-law. Michael is the CEO / President at Ovation Communities. Regarding COVID-19, he keeps resident’s families informed via a weekly e-newsletter. Employees are kept up to date through regular internal communications channels.
Recently, Michael shared an internal communication he authored summarizing the nursing facility’s successful COVID vaccine rollout. I was impressed by the warmth and sincerity shown as he commended employees on the efficient vaccination of 200 residents. He gave a shout out to every department by recognizing their role — from planning to execution. He referenced the exceptional teamwork and expressed his personal pride regarding their professionalism. And he remarked that this was truly an event worth celebrating.
In closing, he wrote, “You are incredibly special. We should never take for granted the impactful work we do, but also the spirit and camaraderie with which we take care of our elders and each-other.”
Throughout my career, I have ghostwritten memos, letters, and feature articles. The drafts returned with the fewest edits are those that best reflect the voice of the “author”, reflect the mission and values of the company, and leave employees better informed. I was pleased to see that these concepts were found in Michael’s message.
Pandemic related internal communications can be made more impactful when incorporating content present in the company’s mission and values statements. Employees’ familiarity with these touchstones helps them find greater meaning and specific value in both the message and in being immunized. His words were true to the Ovation Communities values and reinforced the Ovation Communities mission — to provide residents with “comfort, meaning, independence and dignity.”
Now, as COVID-19 vaccines become available to healthcare employees, communication teams must be involved throughout planning and execution. Communicators must assure that the company’s values and brand drive how the rollout occurs, for the actions and internal communications surrounding vaccine clinics telegraph who and what is important. As these are internal communications, nothing is more important than putting the needs of employees first.
Vaccine-related communications must be disciplined, strategic, personal, and sensitive. They must welcome feedback, address the unknown (as much as possible), and continually reinforce the value the employees have to your organization.
These uncertain times have resulted in greater workplace innovation, but has also caused greater confusion, anxiety, fear and loneliness. The Institute for Public Relations recently published How COVID-19 is Forcing CEOs to Rethink the Importance of Internal Communications. The author notes that the pandemic has made CEOs realize the greater value of internal communications; that “companies can’t grow, prosper or even survive without a knowledgeable, engaged and aware workforce.” He writes that internal communications are evolving with greater importance, accelerating decision-making, challenging existing knowledge, helping leaders frame arguments, illustrate situations and launch initiatives. That’s welcome news for healthcare communications teams.
Here are eight suggestions for COVID vaccine internal communications that reduce confusion, anxiety, fear, and loneliness while putting employees first:
- Reference the organization’s Mission and Values. These touchstones should be familiar concepts for employees. They reinforce the value COVID vaccines have for their patients, families, the community, and each other.
- Be factual and empathetic. Sense how the workforce is feeling and operating and provide the proper narrative reflecting context, prudence, and sensitivity.
- Don’t “sell” the COVID-19 vaccination plan. Employees can “smell the sell” and be turned off. Instead, base communications on a model of discovery — one that allows staff to find the answer or truth for themselves. Provide Q & A’s and reputable references. This reflects a more provocative tone, a more authentic discussion process and a more pragmatic view of human behavior.
- Communicate with discipline and commitment to goals, strategies, and purpose. Adopt a communication philosophy and stick with it.
- Survey employees. Surveys can provide data to understand employee information habits, concerns, interest, and perceptions so information is continually relevant and meaningful. If it’s not important, don’t do it.
- Enable employees to assist with decisions via dialog, discussion, and debate. Employees are a public constituency. Remember that employees are knowledgeable human beings running households, raising children, and being actively involved in their communities and the world around them. The pandemic has disrupted their home life as well as their work life.
- Be personal in messaging. Virtual work environments and ability to login at “off” hours makes connectivity essential. Videos, webcasts, Zoom calls adds a personal touch not found in emails and standard intranet communications.
- Continually address the unknown. Employees want to know when some sense of normalcy will return and what it will look like. They may need to better understand their value to the organization based on what was asked of them during the crisis. They will continue to search for meaning and contentment amid a new reality.
If there is to be a silver lining amongst all the agony of the COVID pandemic, it may be that leadership further recognizes the critical value of internal communications. COVID-19 has been a powerful and sad experience for most everyone. The loss of life and impact on society continues to be unimaginable. Hopefully, we’ve found a deeper and more enlightened comprehension of the human condition and, in turn, a better and more fulfilling way to show our employees how much we value them.
And hopefully, I’ll be able to get a hug from Mom very soon.
Writing comprehensive internal and external COVID vaccine communications plans: Communicating to Your Internal Health Care Team About COVID-19 Vaccinations.
James Shulkin, Chief Brand Officer – Healthcare at NOISE, Inc., has been a member of WHPRMS since 1999.