COVID Impact: Your Duty to Disclose.
A member of your organization has just been diagnosed with COVID-19. The first question the communications team has to ask themselves now is who should know? Other employees? Customers? Public health officials? The public? The press? For some of these audiences, the answer is cut and dry. But for many of them, it’s more complicated. If your organization has a confirmed case of COVID-19, you should immediately communicate that to public health officials—and explain what steps you’re taking to limit the spread to other employees. These authorities are obviously busy coordinating with healthcare workers on the front line of the pandemic response, but proactively informing them of your efforts is both the right thing to do and an important detail to include in all of your future communications. If your organization doesn’t specialize in public health, then aligning yourself closely with those who do is essential for your credibility. What about employees? It depends. No two workforces are exactly the same. For some small companies, everyone works in the same space at the same time. For others, there are multiple shifts, with little-to-no overlap. In larger companies, there could be huge distances between groups of employees, with little chance of exposure beyond the initial cases. Employees in a New York office may not need to know about a confirmed case in a Seattle headquarters unless they recently traveled there. Each company has to make its own decisions, but there are three guiding principles that should inform your choice. First, err on the side of disclosing the news to as many employees as possible. If you’re debating whether a certain office, department, or shift of employees deserves to know, be safe and include them. The repercussions of being tight-lipped about this information could be devastating to the health of your employees, company morale and retention, and the reputation of your brand in the long run. Second, assume that every communication you send could become public. Just about every media outlet under the sun is opting for wall-to-wall coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a very good chance that your employee notification ends up in the hands of a reporter, especially if you’re a large organization with hundreds or thousands of employees. Be prepared to have everything you say broadcast to a wide audience including competitors, customers, and the public at large. Craft your communications accordingly. Third, check with your legal experts. There are very detailed and prescriptive laws when it comes to protecting and communicating about employees’ healthcare information. Make sure your communications are as informative as possible without violating your employees’ right to privacy. Perhaps the toughest question to answer is this: do communicators have a duty to inform the press and public? Once again, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer here. You might choose to issue a public statement, in which case you need to be prepared for the fallout. If you are a cornerstone employer in your media market, you should plan for satellite trucks parked outside your facility and a flurry of incoming questions from reporters. If your case is one of the first in your area, you’ll be under even more scrutiny. If you choose not to issue a public notification of any kind, it is absolutely essential that you’ve been thorough in communicating the circumstances to public health officials, and any employees, vendors, customers, or other stakeholders who might have come in contact with the individual. These are difficult decisions for any organization to make, but those who put honest and open communication first, assume all of their communications will become public, and remain on the right side of the law will weather the storm better than those who don’t.