Last reviewed 25 August 2021
Good communication is an important element of any health and safety management system. But how should you adapt your communication in a crisis situation such as a pandemic? Mike Sopp highlights key guidance.
The Health and Safety Executive states that “to achieve success in health and safety management, there needs to be effective communication up, down and across the organisation”.
Typically, those with responsibility for implementing management systems will be tasked with developing and implementing effective communication processes with stakeholders.
The general approach to communication will be effective for “business as usual” and most unwanted emergency situations but during a crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic a more “corporate” approach to communication is required. This should be factored in to your overall response planning.
Why is communication important?
The Government Communication Service defines communication as “building relationships with others, listening and understanding them, and conveying thoughts and messages clearly and congruently; expressing things coherently and simply, in ways that others can understand, and showing genuine knowledge, interest and concern; bringing these aspects together to make change happen”.
More succinctly, the Health and Safety Laboratory report Effective Communication: the People, the Message and the Media notes that the goal of communication is the acceptance of the sender’s message by the receiver.
It states that “if the receiver understands the meaning of a message that asks for action, but fails to act, the goal of communications is not achieved. But if the receiver does respond to the message by taking the appropriate action, the goal of the communication has been achieved”.
BS ISO 45001:2018, the international standard on occupational health and safety management systems, highlights the need to have processes in place for “internal and external communications relevant to the OH&S management system”.
However, it is up to those with responsibility for health and safety to decide what needs to be communicated and how it will be done.
For example, there may be occasions when others such as top management will be required to give input (eg having their name on certain health and safety communications).
Communication in a crisis
The Government Communication Service Advisory Panel Report, Covid-19 Communications, describes how the Covid-19 crisis has “brought the power of communication to bear on protecting people’s health and saving lives” and to “tell the story of how the business can navigate the health, economic and societal consequences of a deadly illness”.
The Advisory Panel Report highlights that, during the pandemic, the “communication function has risen to the top of the organisational agenda” and that “two-way communication has been applied as a strategic function throughout the crisis to support organisations and their leaders in listening, planning and engaging with internal and external stakeholders”.
Effective communication during the crisis faced certain challenges, not least the sudden changes to business operating models (ie remote working and the furlough scheme) and the increased phenomena of “fake news” and misinformation, particularly on social media platforms.
With workers and third parties desperate for trustworthy information and guidance, a failure to communicate effectively in the pandemic could have significant impacts for organisations.
Case studies such as the Deepwater Horizon explosion have highlighted that failures in crisis communication can have significant long-term implications for an organisation. Typical failures include:
limited organisational resilience and complacency resulting in limited early engagement with stakeholders
limited situational awareness and use of expertise when communicating (eg using the wrong messenger)
failure of “mindful leadership” resulting in minimal feedback opportunities, transparency and cross-functional working.
When communication on health and safety matters becomes a strategic corporate function in a crisis, rather than an element of a safety management system, then the whole process of communicating needs to be managed in a different context and through different processes to be effective.
Best practice crisis management
Crises such as the pandemic need to be managed through appropriate crisis management frameworks. One such framework is BS 11200:2014 Crisis Management. Guidance and Good Practice.
This publication “sets out the principles and good practice for the provision of a crisis management response, delivered by the top management of any organisation” and provides guidance for “communicating successfully during a crisis”.
According to the Standard, effective crisis communications “position the organisation as the central source of information, reassure interested parties and demonstrate control of the situation”.
Pre-crisis planning is emphasised, with the recommendations that:
a crisis communications plan should be developed that sets out the roles, responsibilities, accountabilities and actions required, including invocation
the needs and views of all interested parties are identified and taken into account, including assessing and understanding the factors that are important to stakeholders and which could impact reputation.
Key functions that need to be fulfilled include those of a spokesperson as well as media/social media monitors. The publication then notes the impact that social media in particular can have on crisis communication.
There are number of core principles for crisis communication. This includes but is not limited to the following.
Be prepared and have a clear, straightforward communication process in place.
Move fast by communicating quickly and appropriately, correcting misleading reports.
Maintain the flow. “Little and often” is better than waiting to release everything in one go.
Be transparent and accurate using hard facts and avoid rumour, conjecture and assumptions.
Build a strategy and develop core messages and supporting themes, and keep building them.
Be human and empathetic whenever appropriate.
Six-point checklist for crisis communications
From a more practical perspective, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations has produced a simple six-point checklist on “tips for communicating with employees at times of crisis, specifically Covid-19”. These tips reflect the principles of BS 11200 and can be summarised as follows.
People will look to you for trusted information and guidance regularly. Without this they will fill in the blanks, which will lead to speculation and rumours. Use trusted sources, such as NHS, WHO and Public Health England.
It is OK to not know the answer to everything — but have a plan. Tell people what you are doing, who is involved and where they can ask questions. You can set up a dedicated email address or a group on one of your internal social networks if you feel it is needed.
Make sure everyone knows how, where and when future updates will be provided. It is important that there is a single source of news and updates for the organisation and that everyone knows what this is. Have a clear channel for the communication so that people know where to get correct, accurate and up-to-date details. Make sure the message is consistent and, if you’re making changes to the guidance, make it clear where those changes are.
Use video messages to communicate messages from your CEO. At times of uncertainty employees like to see updates directly from leaders, it can help bring reassurance and clarity on the organisation’s approach.
Do not introduce new communication tools or platforms. Stick to what people already know and use. Remember traditional channels can be effective such as posters and leaflets, especially in a large operational workforce with hard-to-reach workers.
Work closely and meet regularly with a core group of managers from across the business, ensuring that all decisions are communicated promptly to staff.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown that health and safety issues can become a crisis situation for organisations that will require management beyond the organisation’s normal procedures.
Although safety practitioners may be familiar with basic communications principles as part of a formal management system standard, communication in a crisis will become a corporate strategic objective.
As such, any requirements for communicating on health and safety matters will need to form part of the overall crisis planning and management function within a crisis communication plan.
This can be achieved through a broad framework based upon best practice such as BS 11200 with more specific communications requirements set out in guidance such as ISO 45005.
COVID-19 Communications Advisory Panel Report, Government Communication Service
BS 11200:2014 Crisis Management. Guidance and Good Practice, British Standards Institution
Getting the Message? Guidance on Communication, Institution of Occupational Safety and Health
HSL/2007/35 Effective Communication: The People, the Message and the Media, Health and Safety Executive