Good communications in a crisis
Although the true extent of damage caused by coronavirus won’t be known for ages, its impact on our lives has been greater than anyone could have imagined even a month ago.
Times are tough, for all of us. Everyone is adjusting to its impact.
A lifelong friend of my father is believed to have died as a result of coronavirus, aged in his mid-60s. He’s one of more than 1,200 people to have lost their lives as a result of the disease at the time of writing this post. Makeshift hospitals and mortuaries built to cope with the continued rise in cases are grim indications of what’s to come.
People are worried about their employment prospects. I speak to others who work in my industry who are concerned about the impact this crisis will have on their income. This is borne out in #FutureProof’s survey on the PR industry’s concerns. We aren’t alone in having these challenges.
We’re all responding to these pressures in different ways. Keeping pace with vast amounts of fast-changing information on COVID-19, whilst juggling work and caring responsibilities is challenging. We can be very proud of how we’ve responded to it.
Why good comms matters
People will make mistakes every day as they work overtime to address many issues coming at them. It’s telling from a comms perspective to see how those organisations with strong networks and a principled approach are stepping up to these challenges well.
The NHS, supermarkets, local councils, and the BBC are responding brilliantly to the crisis. Others appear uncaring and tone deaf. I’ve seen good communications over the last week, and some truly dreadful stuff. Although every organisation faces different pressures, there are some themes I’ve noticed that separate good from bad. Here are some headline observations, which reflect how we’re responding and advising our clients.
#1 Putting teams first
Alongside customers and stakeholders, I strongly believe that employees are the most important group to engage at this time. They represent organisations and – in many cases – are on the front line delivering critical services to the public. Customers and clients depend on them.
They have concerns about the impact of this crisis on their jobs and health and will look to leaders for reassurance and a sense of what they need to do. Leaders need to be visible. Communication should be clear and regular, even if the ‘answers’ are unknown. Managers need to check in with their teams often and give them opportunities to provide ideas and feedback.
I wrote last week about some things we’re doing in this area. Those who take steps to hold their teams close will stand a better chance of coming out of this better than those who don’t.
#2 Considering the public
Organisations have different groups they will need to reach and support. For private sector organisations, customers and clients are their life-blood. We work with local councils and housing providers who have many groups who depend on them. These groups all face pressures and want support and advice.
This isn’t the time to hit them with a promotional pitch. An email I had from a PR company (who should know better) advising that tables for an awards do were ‘filling fast’ was a particularly egregious example of this. Others are responding publicly to tacky promoted posts online.
Crikey this is incredibly crass marketing when ASOS employees are being forced to work in a cramped warehouse to do non-essential work. Add ASOS to the list alongside Wetherspoons, Sports Direct and Britannia Hotels of company bosses/owners that should be removed. https://t.co/6pg3EnHYVR
— 𝗦𝘁𝘂𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗕𝗿𝘂𝗰𝗲 𝙋𝙍 𝙁𝙪𝙩𝙪𝙧𝙞𝙨𝙩 🚀 (@stuartbruce) March 28, 2020
Useful content and advice, offers of support and reassurance that you’re able to help are all important and valid at this time. If organisations need to explain changes to how they’re working, that’s important too. Supermarkets have been good at this and have struck the right tone (see point #3).
This communication needs to reflect people’s concerns, rather than talking about what an organisation is doing in response to COVID-19. People won’t care about what you’re doing, but they will appreciate what’s being done to support them and their communities. There is a difference between the two.
Remember: anything too promotional is likely to jar. And if you’ve got scheduled posts on your social media feeds, it’s worth turning them off.
#3 Clarity and human tone
I’ve said it before. Language – or what you say – matters. Tone – how you say it – matters too.
People are worried and are trying to make sense of what’s happening. Communication needs to address concerns, clearly and directly, and in a way that’s appropriate. In these anxious times of information overload, this clarity may be more important than ever.
People are more likely to respond positively to updates about how you’re working to protect their livelihoods or important services than those about how you’re ‘taking steps to underpin the future of the company’, for example.
Although there’s been some criticism of the government’s messaging around social distancing, calls to the public to ‘stay home, protect the NHS and save lives’ could not be clearer.
We must all stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives.
Share why you are staying home: Tweet with the hashtag #StayHomeSaveLives
— GOV.UK (@GOVUK) March 28, 2020
It’s undoubtedly harder to communicate clearly and succinctly than it is to produce lengthy briefings laced with management speak and jargon. But if you’re spending time on things that no one will use, or worse, you’re wasting valuable time.
I’ve spent a lot of time writing during this last month, for myself and for those I represent. It’s helping me to clarify my thinking and ‘cut to the quick’. For all the focus on technology and digital engagement, I’m finding writing is the best way to help me to express myself clearly. However people find this clarity, getting this right will be vital in the weeks and months ahead.
#4 Doing good
Others have written well about how brands who treat their staff and others well will come out of this crisis stronger. Time will tell if this happens or whether those who have faced criticism will continue after the crisis as they have did before it.
Beyond the negative headlines, I’m seeing positive responses emerge. Businesses in the West of England are discussing how they can build resilience in their communities. Bristol Media and the West of England Initiative are two organisations I’ve been in touch with recently on these points.
Our clients are responding to help communities get through the crisis. Some are volunteering or donating to food banks. Others are providing services to public bodies for free. This work will help save lives. My colleagues are helping them shape this response and tell this story. It’s inspiring to be involved.
There are, of course, loads of other things happening every day that need attention. For organisations who are doing their bit at this incredibly challenging time, I salute you.
I’m working on a more focused paper and which will cover these points in a way that can be used to support comms efforts. Look out for it on our website. In the meantime, I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on these points and others.
Stay well everyone.