As most of us witnessed over the past several years, when a major natural hazard occurs the government is limited in the degree of assistance it can offer. Warnings of a global influenza pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) underscore the need for organizations to engage in their own loss mitigation activities. Examination of contingency plans drawn up by state and local authorities only serves to highlight this need.
In the event of a pandemic influenza outbreak, the government has encouraged "social distancing" as the primary preventative course of action. Under those circumstances, effective communication will be of paramount importance.
People are "social animals" and derive much of their sense of safety from the social groups to which they belong, with work being a very important one. This sense of safety is invariably shaken with radical changes such as the proposed "distancing" or isolation.
The uncertainty of a chaotic and unpredictable situation highlights the need for "knowing" what is happening around us. Thus the first goal of an effective communication strategy is to create a community or "social context" for dealing with the unfolding situation.
In considering a comprehensive communication strategy that reflects "best practice" standards, three phases or time periods need to be addressed:
u Pre-event (mitigation, preparedness)
u Intra-event (response)
u Post-event (recovery)
Each one of these phases will have different emphases. For example, in the pre-event phase communication will focus on creating awareness of a pandemic and of company policies and procedures. Intra-event communication will focus on disseminating information about the "community" and the ongoing operational aspects of the business. Additionally, in each phase communication will be focused on two parallel tracks:
u One track directly related to business operations and functioning.
u A second track directly related to the "human" side of business: creating a "community context," updating stakeholders, employees, and other key parties.
These tracks are complementary, and both are necessary to ensure effective strategy for continuity of operations.
The communications plan must address the "who" (target audience), "what" (content), "when" (timing and frequency of communication), and finally "how" (technological and other solutions). In addition, the plan needs to incorporate bi~directional communications, as information needs to be communicated both upstream and downstream in order to fully support and strengthen the organization’s resilience.
This blended mode of communications will play a vital role in ensuring organizational resilience in the event of a pandemic. It will help restore the three most important psychological elements in a crisis situation: safety, predictability, and control. Careful attention must be given to the planning process so that communication will act to enhance the sense of community in the stakeholders and minimize disruptions to business.
Living With Macro Levels of Risk
If you watch television, read newspapers, or listen to the radio, you’ve been besieged with information about "pandemic influenza." Despite this potential journalistic overkill, there is serious, historic truth behind many concerns. Every credible source, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Director General’s Office of the World Health Organization, believes we will again experience pandemic influenza. Indeed, governmental and other organizations have gone so far as to create detailed economic impact estimates.
Accordingly, organizations are preparing for what promises to be another event of global proportions – an avian flu pandemic. Pandemic varieties of influenza emerge regularly. During the 20th century, they appeared three times. In each case, they lasted about a year, spread in several "waves," then disappeared.
The most likely candidate for the next outbreak is a strain of avian virus called H5N1. This form of virus is new. There is no immunity built up in any human populations. It has been successful at passing the "species barrier" and now infects humans. According to the World Health Organization, 161 deaths from bird flu worldwide were recorded in 2006. There were 267 confirmed cases of human infection for the year.
Plan and Communicate for Organizational Resilience
Guided by history, we know when the next pandemic flu outbreak occurs, there will be severe dislocations. Services, even key services, may be curtailed, business operations and supply chain operations may be compromised, borders may close. The economic impacts will be huge.
Proper planning and effective communications are critical at pre-outbreak, intra outbreak, and after an outbreak to protect your people, help preserve capital assets, maintain supply chain relationships, and work effectively in the communities where you have a presence. Without an effective communications plan in place, other efforts will be fragmented, there will be no audit capability, and will not be able to protect your most important asset – your people.
We know one thing. During an event of the scale and type of a pandemic influenza outbreak, many things will happen that are outside our control and even outside our prediction. That’s one of the reasons it’s critical have a clear, effective communications plan in place.
During a pandemic, it’s critical to communicate effectively with employees and account for both their well being and their whereabouts. High absentee rates make these communications even more critical to effectively managing your workforce; and by managing we mean providing them with healthcare information, assessing their well-being, and identifying those employees that are available to work.
Also, because a pandemic is not limited to an individual company instead affecting regions or perhaps the entire country, communications are a critical tool in identifying and mitigating impact on your supply chain, which, like your organization, is also likely experiencing high rates of absenteeism.
Successful Pandemic Communications Plans Place People First
Picture yourself at home during a pandemic influenza outbreak. Your first concern is for your family and loved ones. You’ve been forced to isolate yourself and are socially distanced your community and colleagues. Your state of mind is likely to be highly agitated. News is intermittent, you’re not certain if you can get groceries or even water for next week, and your children haven’t been in school for at least several days.
Communications around a pandemic are not limited to a disaster-planning group or a specific set of stakeholders. Communications is a global activity that will affect every employee in your organization, vendors, and others in your supply chain, as well as customers and communities you serve. Communications means more than status updates, collaboration on projects, and other direct, work-related activities. It means connecting with associates, friends and family.
Providing people with this ability to connect helps ensure that individuals are better-informed and feel more in control. These are primary requisites for workforce continuity.
Communications Challenges During a Pandemic
Thus an effective communications plan that contributes to the safety of people by enabling them to both obtain important information and communicate back with status. Other information will also strengthen organizational resilience, with the ability of your organization to bend without breaking. During a pandemic, these challenges are magnified. Organizations can count on having to work with a dispersed employee base, extended high rates of absenteeism, and an overloaded public infrastructure.
In short, even the most elaborate communications equipment and plans require one common element – people – in order to function properly.
Your organization’s people, your suppliers, even your communities, will be concerned with the need to gather general situational information, speak with their friends, find out who’s doing well, to re-establish a social context. Until they have met these basic needs, they will be unlikely to perform business tasks and communications with any degree of success.
Strategizing the Challenge – Loss Mitigation
Communications will play a critical role in helping you manage your business effectively during a pandemic influenza outbreak. Strategizing the challenges presented in the previous section will help to reduce downtime, mitigate financial loss, and protect your people, while maintaining better supply chain and community relationships.
The callout Communications Challenges and Needs describes key communication requirements during this event. Consider the challenges – what happens if you are not able to account for your employees and manage your workforce; what happens if you are not able to keep stakeholders updated and informed; what happens if incorrect or damaging information is released due to lack of control over information flow? What will happen if you’re not able to keep your partners and members of your supply chain informed of status? Next, we discuss some communications best practices to help you plan for these challenges.
Communications Best Practices
– Planning for the Unplanned
There are many elements to effective communications planning. In this section, we offer several key best practices for both communications and for enabling technologies. Effective communications occur during three stages of an event:
Each one of these phases require different communications emphasis. For example, in the pre-event phase, communications should focus on communicating the pandemic plan including expected roles and actions of employees, company policies such as telecommuting, and when employees can come back from work. Intra-event communication need to focus on communicating information about the community of affected stakeholders and the ongoing operational aspects of the business. Post-event communications focus on letting employees, partners, your supply chain know you are operating under normal business conditions.
For maximum effectiveness during each phase, your communications need to address two individual tracks, namely:
u Communications that relate directly to business operations and ongoing functionality.
u Communications that relate to the people side of business.
This second track of communications will help create a community context, as they update stakeholders, employees and other key parties. The more connected people feel, the safer they feel – and the better positioned they will be able to act on more operationally-related communications.
Effective strategies take the differences between these stages into account and are specifically developed to communicate appropriately on both tracks at each stage. This more holistic view of communications enables not only planning and testing for anticipated incidents, but planning for and testing management of the unexpected.
Communications best practices include:
Establishing Consistent Policies – Developing a Communications Plan
Clear policies and protocols make it easier for people to know what to do over the course of a pandemic (or other emergency) event. Typically, a modern communications plan will covers:
u Who (Who needs notification? Who decides notification is required?)
u What (What needs to be communicated? What do you want people to do? What are the triggers?)
u When (When do you start calling? When do you stop? When do you update?)
u How (How will you inform your people?)
Ultimately, a key factor in the success of the communications plan is executive collaboration and decision-making. For example, it’s critical to determine exactly when certain notifications are necessary. Frequently, communications plans should require that members of a senior management team make that determination.
Using the automated communications system to inform senior management of the situation in real time, perhaps automatically bridging key executives into a conference call for live real-time collaboration and decision making.
Additionally, interactive capabilities give you the ability to create an audit trail of their decisions, "press one to confirm that this message should be sent to all employees." This will require that executives are included in the training and testing of the service, and perhaps more importantly, have bought into your communications plan.
Message Management – Content and Channel Selections, Validation, Interaction
What you say and how you deliver your message is critical in an emergency, particularly a broad-based emergency such as a pandemic influenza outbreak. Best practice recommendations in these areas include:
u Provide regular update and status information
u Avoid over-communicating – it dilutes important information (the 11 o’clock news effect)
u Use multiple communications channels to enable message prioritization
u Send time-critical messages by phone
u Send follow-up messages or non-critical status messages via e-mail or bulletins
u Reference other available device channels in all communications to ensure employees have these in mind during a very stressful time
u Pay specific attention to tone of voice and pace. During an emergency, the simple sound of a known voice speaking calmly and deliberately can be an anodyne to uncertainty and stress.
Testing – and Testing Again
Proper and regular testing are essential to the success of any communications plan, regardless of design. During testing, you will not only test the plan itself, and the physical infrastructure (automation and communication) that you have put in place, but you will also be reminding employees and other potential notification recipients such as supply chain partners, and others.
When you test, it’s important to simulate real conditions. Instead of, say, simply testing all communications via a cell phone channel, test all devices. It’s critical to find a balance between having people accustomed to the system and having them ignore it because it’s so routine.
Create venues for participant feedback. By giving participants input into the actual deployment, it invests them and makes them more committed to the plan’s overall success.
Technologies Best Practices
Above, we described certain best practices in communications. Similarly, there are a wide range of best practices for enabling technologies including:
u Automation to ensure timely delivery of communications with verifiable audit trails.
u Verifying delivery and reliability metrics.
u Using a blend of both inbound and outbound multi-channel interactive communications.
This blended form of communications is particularly critical during a pandemic or other large-scale event. During these events, it’s imperative to close the loop – to obtain reports back from outlying staff and other stakeholders as well as providing information to those individuals. For maximum benefit, any communication systems associated with workforce continuity planning must blend both inbound and outbound communications capabilities.
Outbound communications are critical for notifying workers of an unplanned event, providing accurate, tension-defusing information, and delivering critical status information.
Inbound communications enable workers to report on status and well being from the field, let others know of urgent needs, and provide on-the-spot assessments of work-readiness in the field. In short, inbound communications aid organizations in developing a real-time "picture" of what’s happening with employees. This provides a further safety net for workers, both from an organizational and psychological standpoint.
The best practices recommended above describe a portion of the activities necessary to put an effective communications plan in place – a plan that will work to help keep people calm, informed, and connected and that will work to mitigate loss during a severe event such as a pandemic.
As part of their workforce continuity initiatives, a large global financial services firm put a blended communication plan in place to survey their worldwide employees daily during potential future outbreaks of avian influenza. Using an outbound phone questionnaire, the survey was designed to determine each employees work availability and health status.
The inbound component of the communications plan enabled the company to post status and operational information about each office location. For example, if an office were closed, information about alternate work sites could be posted.
The questionnaire asks employees if they are able to work, where they will be working from for the day or, if they are unable to work, why and when they plan to return to work. Further, employees can transfer directly from the survey to the employee assistance line for additional help if needed.
The organization believes that acquiring this information on a daily basis will allow managers to redeploy their workforce in critical areas of the business, as may be necessary. According to a senior business continuity manager for the firm, "This communications capability gives me the information about my group’s well being that I need to have. The knowledge will help me to assign or reassign work as necessary. The ability to track daily attendance will be important for monitoring deliverables with hard deadlines."
Put People First to Ensure Workforce Continuity
Developing an effective, blended communications strategy is a critical component in protecting and helping manage your workforce during a pandemic. It also can help with efforts to maintain supply chain relationships and ensure that all stakeholders are kept informed about important information in a timely fashion.
Effective communications programs can further assist organizations in overcoming the challenges of prolonged absenteeism, degradation of public infrastructure across both the organization and supply chain, as well as the challenge of working with customers who themselves are likely to be out of touch. These plans can enable stakeholders to be in a better position to manage the communications, collaboration, and efforts that will help maintain the organization in the face of such an event.
While high reliability and high availability automation is critical to developing a plan that enables rapid, interactive communications. Equally critical are such elements as developing an effective, best practice based plan that can be rigorously tested in a wide range of ways.
Nobody – not even business continuity professionals – enjoys thinking about the difficulties that such a widespread event can cause. It’s more useful to focus on the positive aspects of what can be done to protect your people, retain organizational resilience, and mitigate loss.
Steve Zirkel is the vice president and general manage of business continuity at Varolii corporation (formerly PAR3 Communications and EnvoyWorldWide). Varolii Corporation provides organizations and federal agencies with proven, reliable notification applications that deliver high-volume, time-sensitive communications.
"Appeared in DRJ's Summer 2007 Issue"