You’ve followed the guidelines, rules, regulations down to the wire, but still, someone inside your venue has tested positive for COVID-19. It could be a team member, a customer, a delivery driver, a cleaner. It could be you. Even if you haven’t been directly affected by infection (yet), at the rate and various geographical spread of the virus (especially in Victoria) there’s every chance you will be. And what happens then? Gourmet Traveller recently reported on the response, struggle and story of Sydney’s Tan Viet, who had a positive case of COVID-19 not long ago. But does that happen to you, too? How do you find the words to talk about what is the most-feared thing in the world right now?
This is a time when reassurance through clear and concise communication is absolutely essential - perhaps even more so than when the initial panic and ensuing lockdowns took place.
In the same fashion of communication that we have been encouraging for the last few months, If this virus hits your business, you will need to communicate swiftly, honestly, and in a direct manner to minimise disruption to your business, your team, relationships and community.
Who you are Communicating to:
Although similar, if not identical in their intent, tone, and purpose, you will need to draft 3 primary versions of your communication for:
Internal audiences in your team(s)
Customers who might have been in contact directly or indirectly with the infected person in your venue, and because of the risk of further spread. Trust is HUGE here.
External audiences such as media, service providers (delivery parties etc), and suppliers.
Your Goals for Communication
You might be looking to tick off a few goals within your communications around COVID-19, but a few of the most important revolve around:
Helping all feel safe and understood
Providing strength, leadership, empathy and direction when all else seems to be struggling to keep afloat.
As you draft your communications, take into consideration you can use many tools.
Here are several you should consider.
A dedicated COVID-19 information page or section of your website (Guide people here with a simple menu tab or a discreet banner on your homepage).
Social Media (Video, Posts, Stories).
Everybody absorbs information differently (think about it, do you read, watch, scroll through or listen to the news?), so it’s important to consider multiple avenues of communication to cater to peoples’ habits. At the end of the day, if you reach your audience, it will be appreciated, so it’s important to maximise your chances of doing so.
Those with the COVID app on their phone may have already been alerted, but the most obvious choice first-up is using your customer database and sending out a well-constructed email. For those customers who have been in contact with your venue in the last few weeks, a phone call is that extra step that will give you the reassurance that your message has been received to those who need it most.
What needs to be communicated:
You will think of additional details once you consider the following, here we have a baseline of key points that need to be addressed when communicating about COVID-19:
For each of your audiences, your first and highest priority is ensuring safety.
Make sure everyone understands exactly what is going on. Don’t beat around the bush. If somebody in your team has tested positive, that’s what needs to be said. If a customer picking up food from your venue has tested positive, that’s what needs to be said. There’s no need to waffle on. It’s crucial that there isn’t room for misinterpretation.
Remind those in your team, your customers and other stakeholders that those who are ill need to feel safe, and not to be blamed while they are being treated. It’s an incredibly difficult time for everybody right now (particularly in Victoria), and showing empathy is so important.
Communicating with your Team:
Be kind and be confident.
Assure (and reassure) that you and the management team will do whatever is required to offer an environment that is clean, safe, and protected.
Communicate plans to everybody in the team about your plans for cleaning and disinfecting the venue.
Put into clear practice the expectations of team members moving forward, both operationally and ethically.
It is vital to be absolutely adamant that your venue/business is as supportive as your team needs it to be during this time. Hospitality is often revered as ‘one big family’. Now is the time to step up to that plate and care for your team like they are just that - a family.
Give them the assurance they will be paid as usual, and that the normal payment process will continue (if this is accurate to your business). If there are changes to salaries, give as much warning and information around this as possible.
Be as clear as possible about initial time periods related to changes in hours, shifts, and everything that directly affects your team’s ability to work. Reassure that you and the management team will reassess this timeframe (and keep the team updated) every day. *Be sure to clarify how this might impact those who already had this time scheduled for vacation, or who are out on sick leave already.
Discuss what your expectations are for continued work schedules, including the meeting, messaging, and communication tools you will be using. Open this up to suggestions and feedback.
Should a team member be approached with questions about your venue/business’ situation, let them know which manager to refer all external inquiries to, including appropriate contact information. Be mindful that the information you provide them is what they will be sharing with others. Keep it clean.
Finally, remind your team that if they are worried about being sick and have even the slightest of symptoms, they can take time from work (if necessary) to get tested as soon as possible. Let them know that they can (confidentially) reach out to you if they are struggling to secure support - logistically or with regards to mental health. Don’t promise a guarantee that you can help in all situations, but that you have empathy and will do your best to point them to a few external resources that might be able to help.
Communicating with your Customers:
Have a template ready to go now, so that as soon as your team members and key stakeholders are aware of the situation, you can talk to your audience. Be prepared. Check out the Worksmith Communications Manual here, and if you need further help, contact the Worksmith Team for (free) assistance.
Let your customers know the situation. You don’t need to go into great detail here; just the essential facts. Don’t play the victim, and do not try and justify the situation with a 'but'. Include a breakdown of timeframe, and use this as a time to be honest about how you’re feeling. Your audience receives enough robotic information about COVID already, bringing the humanity and hospitality you are known for to your messaging.
Mary’s is a textbook example of how to convey your messaging to your customers after their Circular Quay venue was identified as a place of Casual Contact of a confirm COVID case. Their messaging was spot on, and the reactions from their audience are a testament to this. Check it out here.
Let them know an initial time period for your changes in your hours of operation, and that you will reassess that timeframe every day (It’s best to avoid unhappy customers who show up for a takeaway coffee/meal only to be met with a sign on the door saying you’re closed).
Communicate your plans to clean and disinfect your venues now and on an ongoing basis, as well as the future steps you will be taking to ensure a safe and healthy environment.
Reassure, reassure, reassure! Disarm all uncertainty about your venue and your team, whether it’s a pick-up in social media showing how you guys operate, increasing customer interactivity with your menu, or encouraging/motivating your audience/customers to diner/drink with you again by running a social media campaign. (for help putting together a strategy or template, you can contact the Worksmith team for free, today).
Recommend that they, too, keep others around them safe by considering social distancing until they know they are safe and healthy.
When communicating using social media, know the difference between genuine feedback/concern and internet trolls.
Be mindful of the language that you use. You may think that the words you use won’t have an impact on how your message is received, but think of how you feel when you read a restaurant review, and how the language used either makes you want to visit or keeps you at bay: Telling your audience that your venue is ‘confident and comfortable’ rather than ‘safe and sterile’ can make all the difference in how your message is received.
Communicating with external audiences (media etc.)
When it comes to engaging in conversation with the media, there’s one rule that PR legend Monica Brown swears by: Don't do it - there’s no need.
The message you share with your customers, whether via email or on social media is all that you need to share with the press, and unless you give them a story, they won’t come asking for one.
If for some reason, a member of the press does want to reach out to you, Brown drills in her golden rule - do not engage. “If they call you, tell them now is not a good time, and that they can reach out to you over email. It gives you time to put together your messaging, with no room for budging.”
Brown’s final words of wisdom: Don’t be scared and be prepared. This is life now, and it will pass soon (everything always does), but you can’t escape it - so fucking grow up”
For a full run-down on communicating in a time of COVID with Monica Brown, pull out your notebook and watch our ‘Ask Us’ web series from 13/08 online here.
If you, or somebody you know works in hospitality in regional Victoria, the Worksmith team would like to extend our services