At some point in your Comms career, you may need to communicate the death of an employee.
The purpose of this article is to help you think through your approach and point you towards resources.
I hope you find it useful and don’t need to act on it. But if you’ve discovered this article because you’re in this situation, I hope it helps.
Thank you to everyone who has shared resources and insights with me.
Throughout my Comms career over the past 21 years I’ve unfortunately had to communicate deaths in various guises. First as a Journalist, then while in-house for a decade, and now in an advisory capacity as a Consultant.
It doesn’t get easier. But through this article I’ll share advice to help you feel prepared.
It’s important to note you always need to adapt any plan or messaging to suit the circumstance, so I can’t give you an exact script as that wouldn’t be appropriate.
Action to take: If you don’t know what your internal policies and procedures are, including protocols, roles and responsibilities for communicating the death of an employee, check today. Build this into your crisis communication planning. Your future self will thank you for it.
Before we get started, I want you to bear this quote from Maya Angelou in mind: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Why? Because in this situation, we not only need to focus on what we’re saying and doing, but how employees feel.
In the short term, they will remember what you said and did, but in the longer term, how you made them feel is what resonates.
Our intention with this type of internal communication should be for our employees to feel supported in their grief and/or shock, able to express their emotions and be appropriately informed.
Appropriately informed is a strange thing to write, I’ll focus more on that shortly.
What you write and do is important and this article will help you make informed decisions.
Years from now, some employees will remember what you wrote and the actions you took, but how you made them feel will stay with them.
For example, I can acutely remember how I felt when one of my classmates died unexpectedly when we were 13-years-old. I remember how my teachers made me feel as an individual, as part of my friendship group, class and year.
What stays with me, 27 years on, is the personalised, kind and gentle communication. I don’t remember the exact words, but I remember the actions and particularly how they made me feel.
What does this mean for Comms pros?
For us as professional communicators, getting the wording right is as important as the actions and feelings in this situation.
What you say, how you say it and the order in which it’s said are critical considerations. Why? They can impact how employees feel today and years from now.
CIPR Inside recommends the following: ‘Before you create a communications process, make sure you are working in partnership with your HR team as they should be leading on this process with communications supporting. All decisions should be made in collaboration with the relevant departments.”
Communicating a COVID-19 related death
The Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ Local Public Services (LPS) group has created a detailed guide to help you communicate a COVID-19 related death. Thank you to Mandy Pearse, Bridget Aherne and the LPS group for sharing it with me.
It was released in April 2020 as part of its COVID-19 advisory group and draws on the FirePRO Death in Service toolkit released in 2014. I recommend reading it via their website.
The guidance states: “The circumstances of having to communicate the death of a valued employee from Coronavirus (COVID-19) will be personal and a rigid or prescriptive communications plan prepared in advance won’t help. However, it is useful to have an outline plan which can quickly be adapted and applied if you need it.
“Make sure your plan is integrated to your organisation’s communication strategy or policy and forms a part of any overall policy or operating protocol that could be invoked in the event of a death of an employee. Discuss things like how you would articulate whether an employee has died of Coronavirus (COVID-19) or with Coronavirus (COVID-19) and how your communications complement official guidance on protocols and processes on dealing with employee deaths from the disease. Your plans also need to take account of official support and the channels to go through like that should be offered by ACAS.”
The COVID-19 guidance also includes a useful example timeline…
What to do first
Verification is critical. In other words, establishing the facts.
This is coupled with permission from the employee’s family. These go together.
In my experience, Comms and HR teams can often know the news swiftly as their family get in touch. It’s important you liaise with the employee’s family to make sure you don’t share the news internally before their wider family has been informed.
You need a clear picture in terms of what has happened. Sometimes details will emerge over time, but you need to be sure of the facts.
Some of these you will communicate, others will be for your own context, which will help you shape what/when you communicate.
Make sure you know:
- The employee’s name – double check the spelling. Were they known as another name internally?
- Their job title.
- How long they had been with the company for.
- Who their line manager was.
- How they died and when – the details you give will depend on the circumstance. Again it’s important to liaise with relevant parties.
- Funeral date and wishes.
Again, to reiterate, from this list above – some of these you will communicate, others will be for your own context, which will help you shape what/when you communicate, particularly how they died and funeral date.
I encourage you to maintain the family’s privacy and keep the lines of communication open between you and them.
Determine the timing together. You may want to talk about external communication e.g. media handling and external parties e.g. clients/suppliers at this stage too. This is both in terms of what to say and details e.g. sharing a photograph or not. I know it feels early to do this, but I’ve found knowing this decision upfront to be useful.
Maintaining the family’s privacy is critical
Be mindful of the details you are sharing with your company. If they were a private person, it may not be appropriate to share details about their partner, children or home life.
Be guided by their family and line manager.
My advice is to keep details short and factual.
This is what I meant by appropriately informed earlier. You need to establish facts to guide what you say and how you say it, but you’ll make choices about what to share, so employees are also appropriately informed.
I have offered families the opportunity to release a short statement to be circulated internally. Sometimes families want to do that immediately. Other times they say no, then come back a week or so later to say yes. The choice is theirs, please respect it.
Again, keep the lines of communication open.
Initial contact with family/next of kin
Advice from CIPR Inside states: “Initial contact with the family/next of kin is likely to be instigated either by them or by the colleague’s line manager on being informed of the news.
As a guide, the first call should be:
- an opportunity for the line manager to express condolences both personal and on behalf of the company
- used to agree to onward communications about the colleague’s death including: details of the cause of death to be shared or not, the mechanism for communicating news with colleagues and third parties, signposting of funeral arrangements if appropriate, used to agree to any other remembrance activity which may have proposed at this early stage, including condolence book, fundraising page etc
- used to arrange the formal call about administrative steps which will follow.
“If these steps are not achievable in the first call, then a second call following a suitable lapse of time should take place.”
Once the line manager has spoken to the family, they should notify HR immediately so they can instigate the relevant process/procedures.
Who to tell
Be mindful about who is told, when. Make sure the order is clear in your mind. E.g. their manager and immediate team, then wider team. You may choose to inform the whole company, but if you are a global organisation, you may choose not to do so. Analyse every situation and choose what’s appropriate.
Don’t forget to point your colleagues towards resources and people who can support and help them. For example, your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). Make sure you inform your EAP provider, so they can support your people.
Thank you CIPR Inside for sharing these links with me:
Thank you Matt Clements, Senior Marketing and Comms Manager, for sharing this link with me from Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB): Supporting bereaved staff as they cope with the death of a colleague.
Who to tell externally – including media handling
Sometimes there will be external parties, e.g. suppliers or customers, who should be advised of their death.
When you are preparing an internal announcement and perhaps a version for external parties, I recommend preparing a reactive media statement too. It may not be used, but while you’re getting an internal message prepared and signed off, I’ve found having a factual statement, plus appropriate comment, to be helpful.
Journalists may ask for a photograph, this was certainly commonplace for me. I recommend talking to the family about this, as mentioned above.
Details of the funeral are the privilege of the family. They can choose not to share them with you and that choice is theirs.
Sometimes families may want to make it known, or share details of a certain charity or cause they are raising money for.
Again, keep the lines of communication open.
Circumstances of death
Details of their passing
Be mindful of language. Consider appropriate phrases to use. For example “the passing of” may be preferable to “untimely death” – this is an emotional time, be mindful of language choice.
Resources in the event of a suicide:
I recommend reading this Postvention Toolkit via Business in the Community in association with Public Health England and support by Samaritans.
Some organisations choose to have a memorial for the person who has died. This can vary from a virtual or physical guest book for people to sign or perhaps a moment of silence for quiet reflection.
Considerations for longer lasting initiatives could include something like a recognition award in their honour, perhaps personifying a value they were known for.
If I go back ‘home’ to Essex, I still stop by my old school at least once a year to lay flowers at the foot of my friend’s memorial tree. The school provided us with a place to mourn as friends, which remains a comfort today.
Other things to think about
This is not an exhaustive list, but other things to think about include:
- marking anniversaries in future
- outcome of any criminal investigation, if applicable, and renewed interest internally and externally
- HR to liaise with family/next of kin re: company collateral and personal belongings
- removing their photograph from your internal and external communications
- when to remove memorials, or deciding what remains as a permanent feature.
Guidance for communicating a death in service – by CIPR Inside
Advice from your peers around the globe
Thank you to all the Comms pros who shared their thoughts with me on this sensitive topic via Twitter @AllThingsIC.
You can see their comments below.
I hope this article helps you communicate this sensitive topic.
If you are stuck and need advice, why not book a Power Hour consultation call with me and I will help you think it through.
Thank you for stopping by,
Post author: Rachel Miller
First published on the All Things IC blog 10 November 2020.