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5 Ws and an H: Developing a successful crisis communication plan


During ordinary times, there are a lot of moving parts to a communication plan.

During a pandemic through which organizations are navigating the uncertainty and unpredictability of a novel coronavirus, it becomes even more complex.

Understandably, employees and clients are distracted as a result of the personal and wide-reaching impacts of COVID-19, and many ‘good-intent' messages are not received, not understood, or not embraced.

Developing a coordinated communication plan that cuts through distractions, creates a dialogue between employees and leadership teams, and allows for increased productivity and continued performance isn't easy—but it is very do-able.

5 Ws and an H: a to-do list for crisis communications

Focusing on key questions—the five Ws and an H—creates a to-do list for a thorough communication plan that will accomplish your employee, client, and external-stakeholder objectives.


Your communications should align to a specific purpose—a result you want to achieve through your COVID-19-response communication plan. Initial communications should prioritize informing and reassuring your key stakeholders—and eventually expand to include directing objectives in the message mix.


Your communications need to be accurate, transparent, and empathetic. They need to include links to official, reputable sources for example, the Canadian government or World Health Organization).

Follow-up communications need to include your organizational response and actions that demonstrate your leadership in understanding the risks and impacts.

All communications need to include opportunities for employees to ask questions, voice concerns, and provide feedback. To best address employee concerns, organizations need to respond promptly and appropriately—even if it is to say “we do not know, but we will get back to you once we do.”


Primary communications should be sent by your president, CEO, or other members of your leadership team and be targeted to your audiences, external or internal.

Secondary communications should include customized messages for people managers and select employee segments, so it is important that you establish appropriate distribution groups.


Communication plans need to have a good balance of message formats, including virtual town halls or meetings, videos, emails, etc. The various channels used to distribute (and store) your communications are critical to ensure a lasting and meaningful impact. A dedicated, organization-wide communication channel needs to be established for employees as their first stop for official ‘sources of truth', as a repository for company policy, and as an alternative location to ask questions.

Communications practices also need to be established to reach employees who are not at your physical offices (either because they are on leave or because they are isolated at home) and who do not have access to company networks.


A communication plan acts as a schedule that coordinates the distribution of messages, and the cadence used should be determined with the objective of providing employees and clients with a sense of comfort.

Message timing has to align to your employee and client needs at all times—otherwise, your message can result in misinterpretation or a negative reaction.

How often

Communications should start early, be timely, and be continuous—the concept of over-communication does not exist in a crisis.

Establishing multiple ways for employees to ask questions and voice concerns also has to be accomplished quickly and maintained constantly—communication has to be mutual for organizations to move forward together.

Realizing the benefits of crisis communication

Communication is critical to addressing employee and client questions, concerns, and fears during a crisis. It is the primary means to consistently provide accurate information, challenge incorrect or misinformation, and give employees necessary opportunities to ask questions and be heard on an ongoing basis.

When your employees have a clear sense that their company is responding and adapting to the crisis, and that their health and safety and the health and safety of their colleagues is a top priority, your communications have achieved their intended result—the workforce can regain lost productivity and achieve improved performance.

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