Communicating through and beyond the crisis

By Christine McGuinness and Anne Nicholls

The global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is challenging for every person around the world on a personal or professional level, possibly even both. For those of us working in communications professions, the challenge is different. We have a responsibility to cascade, confirm and clarify national and organisational guidelines to keep our staff and stakeholders up to date on a normal day. Add in a global emerging health crisis, throw in new ways of working and shift a large chunk of meetings online, and that responsibility to communicate clearly, effectively and efficiently is off the charts.

CIPR HQ, regional and sectoral groups are doing everything we can to support our members during this vast collective hour of need. And while PR people generally are not seen or heard, four brave CIPR Not for Profit Committee Members decided now was the time to step briefly into the spotlight to use our collective NHS, Government, third sector and freelance experience to provide some insight and advice on COVID Comms.

As this was our first foray into webinar territory, we didn’t know what to expect, whether anyone would show up, or whether we would have any questions to answer. But with more than 60 questions sent in and 85 people signed up to logon with us, we had clearly hit upon something. 

As there were so many excellent questions, the panel weren’t going to be able to answer them all in an hour. They grouped them into four main themes and answered them broadly to help as many people as possible, focussing on how to cut through the ‘noise’, internal communications, fundraising and how to prepare for life after Covid-19 (the elusive ‘getting back to normal, whatever that means!).

Whilst the coronavirus crisis is still at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it’s important to focus on your organisation’s core purpose and stay grounded and - whether you are freelancer, agency or working in-house - to remain accessible and available.

The pressing need might be just keeping going during lockdown but remember your core mission and keep that in people’s sights. Having a voice at the top table is crucial and now is a good opportunity to demonstrate your value and influence behaviour change.

This is clearly not the time to be putting together your three-year communications strategy. There is no need to rip it up and start again, however, you may need to prioritise certain actions, pare other things back and stop doing the ‘nice-to-do’ work and remember, concentrate on the channels and methods that you know work to meet the needs of both your internal and external audiences. Show how you can help your funders and supporters and talk directly to them. Whether they are staff, clients, beneficiaries, service users, volunteers, funders or suppliers, you can use quick surveys to find out what matters to them. 

If your organisation is working mostly face-to-face with people such as service users, you will need to find new ways of engaging with them. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Google Hangouts and WhatsApp are just a few of the tools available to help you do this, but don’t ignore email and phone, as some people may be more comfortable with these approaches.

Keep communications flowing; more is better than less. Look at how you can keep the momentum going with reduced staff and resources. Be inventive and imaginative. You could create a microsite for staff to access all the latest information and guidance, and you may need to do a bit of hand holding for people who are not used to working remotely and using new tools.

The human side of communications is even more important now. It’s essential to use the right tone of voice – be reassuring, supportive and show empathy; be honest and authentic. It’s okay to stress that you don’t have all the answers but that you are trying to find solutions but it’s vital to deliver on your promises or be upfront about why you can’t.

This is a stressful time for many people, and you need to help them through it. Tell staff your thought process. Share stories showing how others are coping. Your messages should be factual, reassuring and as neutral as possible, but it’s important to remember that you are talking to a person, not an organisation. 

Some people want to hear stories that are not about the crisis, so have a balance between crisis and non-crisis messages. At some stage you will need a plan for getting back to the ‘new normal’, whatever that is, so regularly look review your crisis plan alongside your business as usual plan to consider what you may be able to reintroduce and when.

And finally, you don’t need to be in the same room as people to make things happen. Be brave. Be imaginative. And continue telling incredible stories.

Don’t worry if you missed the webinar – here’s our Ten Top Tips for Communicating in a Crisis.

1. Know your audience and what they need from you.
2. Segment your communications and provide the most appropriate message to each group.
3. Manage expectations about when, what and how you will communicate.
4. Leaders need to be authentic, visible and follow through on promises.
5. Keep your communications clear, simple and accessible.
6. Be open, honest and transparent.
7. Be human and acknowledge how people may be feeling.
8. Maintain your organisational / brand values in everything you do.
9. Monitor and measure your channels and ask for (and be open to) feedback.
10. Review your existing plan regularly and reprioritise if you need to.

These tips are good advice for communicating at any time, no matter what sector you work in, and you will be setting a good course if you follow them. But if you only take one thing away from this, it’s this: know your audience and what works well.

Adam Grinsell, Communications Manager at RoSPA
Christine McGuinness, Communications Manager at NHS Golden Jubilee
Gemma Pettman, Freelance PR and Communications Advisor working with not for profit organisations
Holly Wilkins, Head of Communications and Engagement, Government Digital Service