What a Difference a Year Makes – Comms vs Covid

By Yvonne Wilcox and Eranta Andersone

One year on from Covid becoming the most used word in public conversation, what has been the impact on our communications?  Has it become harder, or have some found it easier to connect with stakeholders?  

On the anniversary of the first lockdown on 23rd March, the CIPR Not-for-Profit and Midlands groups partnered to present an event with a panel of experienced communicators who shared their experiences of the last 12 months. The panel answered questions about changes in stakeholder communication, using new channels for the first time, finding out what worked (and didn’t work) and other ways we could better connect to the people we want to reach. The dynamic online event covered the highs and the lows of communication since the first lockdown, lessons learnt and top tips for the future.

Positives and negatives

We started by looking at the most universal positives and negatives of the past year and identified changes that were likely to stay.

1. Equipment and flow of information.
Raman Johal, Communications and Involvement Manager at NHS Coventry and Rugby CCG, spoke about the initial challenge of not having the team equipped with laptops, never imagining the situation would last this long. Raman went on to say how the organisation quickly put in place daily (now reduced to three times a week) newsletters to keep all staff updated.

2. Reaching new audiences
A positive for Raman was the new connection with some ‘hard-to-reach’ groups via local community groups. This breakthrough has since then helped the organisation to communicate with audiences that are usually more difficult to engage.

Laurian Hubbard, Head of Engagement at the Welsh Parliament, emphasised the importance of ‘drilling down’ on specific audiences and how positive it has been for communication teams to take a step back and break down the segmentation. Moving away from broadcasting communications and improving direct connections with those ‘hard to reach’ audiences has been a must in Laurian’s experience.
Vanessa Hebditch, Director of Communications and Policy at The British Liver Trust, agreed that turning patient support groups virtual had been a success. The team had tried to do this some years ago, but there was little to no appetite for it and people were reluctant to engage.  Now, they are calling the virtual groups ‘a lifeline’. This group format is also much cheaper to run for the charity. “This is something we'll definitely be continuing post-Covid,” said Vanessa.

Virtual, face-to-face or both?

It’s important to understand your audience rather than just putting something on the internet, suggested Dan Slee, Director at C2 Ltd and a public sector digital communications specialist. “If we default to putting everything on the internet because that's where everyone is these days, we will have failed to learn the single most important lesson of understanding our audiences.”

Hackney Council counts 20,000 Observant Jews (who do not use the internet) among its residents. So, it was important to take the time to find out which channels the council could use to reach this group. The important questions to ask are:

•    Who is your audience?
•    What is the best way to reach them?
•    Is it really working? (Don’t just whack it on the internet.)

The Hackney council found a combination of WhatsApp and video with community leaders effective. But as always, the answers lie in the sweet spot of ‘the right amount of digital and face-to-face’. As one of the attendees commented, “One size does not fit all”. Behavioural science, insight and segmentation all help to understand each audience group and eventually build trust.

Hard to reach or not trying hard enough?

Dan spoke about the ‘seldom-heard’ groups - those audiences which communicators often define as hard to reach. “They have always been there as micro-communities. We are now identifying those groups that were possibly missed before. When you are aware of the task, it seems huge but actually it can make your life easier in the end, once you have worked through the audiences. It’s not just about comms but about building trust.” Dan recommends to keep engaged to build trust with the micro-community audiences and to ensure this is accounted for in the strategy and the process.

A few attendees mentioned WhatsApp groups as a good form of communicating with some of these stakeholders. Several attendees identified podcasts and using them internally for segmentation. This channel is especially effective for people who can listen on their mobiles and/or are not desk-based.

Cutting through the digital noise

This time last year no one thought we would still be here. And yet, a year on – here we are, so we have to learn how to do things differently, both in how we work and what we do.

1.    Fighting digital fatigue.
Laurian and Raman suggested a few things that could help cut through the digital noise many comms practitioners face:

·    One screen-free hour a day.
·    Scheduling meetings for 50 minutes rather than an hour, to give all participants a 5-minute break before and after.
·    Using different platforms to meet and collaborate.
·    Having a variety of people speak and contribute to avoid fatigue.
·    Taking regular breaks outside.
·    Putting R&R in place for one hour a week.
·    Wellbeing warriors – specialists who tackle issues people far working from home. For example, a video session with a physiotherapist, educating employees on how to sit and adjust the workstation to minimise any negative impact.

2. Reacting and campaigning differently.

Vanessa pointed out a benefit of smaller teams: “being smaller, you can be nimble. We produced an app on a tiny budget of £2k with a call to action. This went alongside fast-paced 20-second Facebook ads, using kinetic text and graphics on alcohol and obesity (two main factors of liver disease). This resulted in an increase of 14,000 new people coming to our online screening, which we then followed up with a supporter journey.”

Vanessa also commented on the importance of audience insight. Spending time with support groups (now done via virtual focus groups) helped the team understand what stakeholders’ concerns were and then integrate those into communication activity.

On the subject of different campaigning, Dan added the fact that Facebook groups have 42 million users in the UK, and the average person is a member of five groups.  This can be good way to cut through the digital noise, especially when we identify relevant groups and aim content directly at them.

The changing status of comms teams

The general consensus is that the comms role in organisations is being recognised as being an important one. Dan believes that one good thing to come out of the pandemic is that “people have realised that comms is important and that it might be part of the solution”.

Vanessa commented on how ‘crazy’ the start of the pandemic was, when advice was changing on a daily basis. It also meant having to interact more with the government, as the guidelines were not always there. “Because of this, the organisation recognises the importance of comms more than ever before.”

In terms of a better work-life balance for comms professionals, Laurian believes a blended approach to working in the future will help. Even though comms is 24/7, it’s up to all of us to keep pushing for better balance. “When normality resumes, we definitely have to keep flying that flag for a better work-life balance. We need to make sure that we are practising what we've preached over the last 12 months.”

If you’re a CIPR member working in the not-for-profit space, follow the CIPR Not-for-Profit group (on social media or log in on your CIPR online account) for sector-specific events and other learning opportunities.

The state of PR post-Covid will demand different things from us as PR/comms professionals. The CIPR’s post-pandemic survey (open to all comms professionals) is a good opportunity to help the CIPR improve services, shape policies and inform debate and generate intelligence to share with the sector. You can complete the survey here by 18th April 2021: