How long did your organization have to prepare for the novel coronavirus pandemic? Most businesses had just a few days to determine if and how to fundamentally alter operations during the pandemic and have continued to adjust since. Fortunately, you have more control over when and how your workplace reopens to employees, partners and customers.

As federal, state and local governments ease COVID-19-related restrictions, workers return to offices and businesses reopen to the public, it’s important to have a detailed plan. Just as important is how you communicate that plan to both your internal and external audiences to ensure a smooth, safe transition.

Address internal audiences first.

Staff and stakeholders have supported your organization in unforeseen ways during the pandemic. You have a team you can trust, and they need to know they’re valued. Communicate with your employees and stakeholders early and often, especially if plans shift. Make sure they know they’re appreciated and understand their roles in reopening. Employees should be equipped with the tools to clearly and correctly answer questions from partners and customers about your business’ reopening, should they arise. Inform your staff if you’d rather they direct questions to designated communication leaders within your organization.

Communicate with consumers clearly and consistently.

Once you’ve thoroughly communicated with your internal audience, share information with your customers and your community. Uncertainty has been a constant in the last few months, so make sure your messaging doesn’t further confuse your audiences while allowing for changes with shifting circumstances. Keep communication brief, clear and consistent. Consider designating a communications team that represents a cross-section of your organization to help proofread your messaging to ensure that it is as comprehensive as possible and is consistent with your plans. It’s also imperative to be responsive to customers’ questions and concerns. If you’re part of a business-to-business organization that relies on strong relationships between business contacts — such as those in the sales or service industries — empower your team to communicate openly and address questions immediately.

Think long-term.

Many businesses have learned the importance of having a crisis communications plan, which is a critical set of guidelines for responding to and communicating about possible crisis scenarios that could affect your operation. Gather your leaders and brainstorm some of the challenging scenarios that could arise during reopening. Create a crisis communications plan to address these concerns with plans for internal and external stakeholders. Take advantage of your organization’s crisis mindset to anticipate other potential difficulties — even those unrelated to the pandemic — and create a more comprehensive, forward-looking plan.

Emphasize reassurance but be honest about risks.

Consumers are growing weary of topics related to COVID-19, so avoid communicating too frequently. Inform them when you have solidified most of your reopening plans and can confidently reassure them of their safety while interacting with your business. Ask employees and customers for compassion and cooperation in maintaining safety protocols. Immediately tell your internal and external audiences if you learn of possible COVID-19 exposure at your business. Share what you’re doing to minimize patrons’ risk, which helps build trust and demonstrates honesty. For instance, restauranteurs can detail the ways they’re maintaining safety guidelines by monitoring employees’ health, requiring staff to wear masks and properly sanitizing all surfaces. If a restaurant learns an individual who had COVID-19 symptoms ate at their establishment, they may want to inform the community through their digital communications platforms. Organization leaders will need to maintain the individual’s privacy, but they can share how the establishment is working to maintain safety.

Use your resources.

Consider the channels through which your organization successfully communicates. Digital channels, especially, offer your organization a convenient way to share updates. Use social media platforms and update sections of your website to reach a variety of audiences. Well-written emails and e-newsletters also allow you to share information in a timely manner. Additionally, your organization can use emails to share personalized messages. Healthcare providers are great examples of how to communicate with patients. In addition to information posted on their websites, providers communicate with visitors before appointments through online patient portals, emails and text messages, asking if they have symptoms and informing them of safety guidelines visitors need to follow during an appointment.  

Remember what you’ve learned.

Your business has adapted, and consumers’ habits have shifted. Which techniques and tools adopted in the early days of the pandemic should you keep or update? Perhaps you’ve hosted virtual events and seen attendance grow because your audience finds it easier to log on rather than travel to an event space. You’ve likely learned ways to communicate with your audience digitally as those platforms have been the easiest ways to reach an audience. In fact, about 90 percent of Americans say they’re watching more videos — primarily through online streaming services. Social media use has increased across the board, and more people are visiting organization's websites for information and services. While you may want to resume communicating primarily in person, don’t let established online audiences fall by the wayside. For example, local retailers may find it necessary to establish permanent online shopping portals or build excitement for new seasonal products by livestreaming video tours of their retail space on social media.

Remember that before you begin communicating with your audiences, you need to develop a solid plan. Take your time to develop a plan you and your organization's leaders are comfortable with and consider how best to communicate it.