it's over covid-19 communications and pr hopes.png

Coronavirus has challenged every assumption we have about how we live, how we care for our kids, how we look out for each other, how we behave as consumers, and how we work.

by Ben Capper

We’re nowhere near through Coronavirus. We’re maybe (possibly, hopefully) approaching the end of the beginning. But we’re in this for the long haul.

It won’t always be like this. It’ll probably get worse for a while, and then it’ll get a bit better.

And then life will return to normal.

But will it? And what will “normal” even look like after the worst has passed?

For the comms world at least, life is likely to look very different, whenever that day comes.

I asked the good people of the UK comms community for their hopes of how things will have changed, when something approaching normal life returns:

Hope Number 1: We’ll be trusted to deliver

Comms teams have been absolutely pulling up trees during this crisis. We’ve been creative, empathetic, authoritative and a great comfort to a worried and anxious public.

We’ve long argued that our leaders should trust our professionalism and ability to deliver.

The crisis has necessitated quick, resourceful decisions to be made, and executed in real time. We simply haven’t had the luxury (or the indulgence) of long-winded sign-off processes.

And guess what? It has worked out fine. Councils, NHS orgs, and charities have been getting information out to the public that is timely, inspired and impactful – and all without every piece of comms having to go “via an Exec for comment”. It has shown that when we’re trusted to deliver, we deliver, and then some.

There is absolutely no reason why this way of working shouldn’t be the normal.

Or as some members of our community put it:

Trust – Comms is pretty well respected in our organisation anyway but being given the ability to get on with the job and be trusted to do the right thing a lot more now as we have to act quickly

Sarah Yates @haribohats

For those orgs who hadn’t clicked, it’s shown why comms needs a seat at the top table. Also shown orgs need to understand outside environment when communicating (those who don’t have sent those crass emails with no value). And boy its sped up uptake of remote tech and working.

Lorna Branton @LornaBranton

Acceptance that engagement is part of the Comms discipline and should be led by Comms.

Mandy Pearse @MandyPearse

The speed that info needs to be transmitted has now been cemented with this crisis. I reckon that being the case, the bureaucratic nature with which some crisis comms plans have been set would have to be significantly changed.

Adisa @abjel

Hope Number 2: Organisations will *finally* get over the fear of remote working

Right now, there are very few of us sat at desks in draughty 1960s office buildings 8 hours a day, using computers still running Windows Vista that take 15 minutes to boot up, uncomfortably observing a “professional” dress-code.

And we’re producing much better work for it.

I really hope that organisations will finally realise that the outcomes of our work are far more important than the physical location we do it in.

Many big businesses talk a good game when it comes to remote working, but it’s very seldom backed up with the right tools to do the job. The current crisis has shown this up for the short-sighted approach that it is.

We need a proper IT infrastructure. We need proper flexible working arrangements. We need to trust each other. This crisis has proven that it is possible to do all of this, with great results.

Our community agrees:

Physical communications teams or agencies will be a thing of the past; this has proven that teams can work just as efficiently, if not more so remotely – rolling out crisis comms, mobilising new campaigns and maintaining business as usual from the comfort of their sofas!

Seoana Leigh @seoanaleigh

Comms teams by their very nature have been a step ahead in terms of mobility, digital resilience & readiness to be able to work from anywhere. I think this crisis has given comms teams the opportunity to be leaders in their organisations, helping them adapt to new ways of working .

I also think it’s ripped up (hopefully permanently) the traditional seat at the table scenario. There’s been no table for nearly 3 weeks. Again, the shift to a digital landscape has played to the strengths of comms teams who have been comfortable working that way for longer.

Mark Roberts @Markie_Roberts

Hope Number 3: We’ll start treating children and young people with the respect they deserve.

What has “engaging with young people” traditionally looked like in your organisation?

Let me guess, at various points, various middle-aged managers have asked you to do at least one of these things:

  • Let’s do a snazzy poster

  • Let’s do a game

  • Let’s do a trendy app

  • Let’s do a viral video WITH CATS! LOL!

You could do one or all of those things. Or…you could actually listen to what is important to said children and young people, and engage with them in a way that is empathetic without being patronising…

…like the Norwegian Government did:

‘It’s OK to be scared,’ Norway PM says at kids-only coronavirus briefing

Whether you’re a large corporate organisation, a small independent business or a charity led by volunteers, every customer, colleague or child matters.

Nicola Capper @nordicnotes

Hope Number 4: “Digital inclusion” stops being a nice-to-have

This crisis has shown how important real-time information is to saving lives.

In a fast-moving, chaotic situation, dealing with an adversary that has never been faced before, comms needs to be constant and up to date.

Public organisations have done incredible work so far in getting essential information out to their communities; and it has been almost entirely digital.

The crisis has therefore shown how vitally important it is to make sure that the digitally excluded are prioritised in all our future plans.

It’s simply not good enough anymore to be told that “not everyone is on the internet, so we need a printed version”(which, let’s face it, is very often code for “Me want poster.”)

Not only that, but this type of unprecedented situation is quite simply not one that will lend itself to printing things out and pinning them to public noticeboards; or waiting for a statement to be read at the next Parish Council meeting. The situation is moving too fast, and too much new information is coming to light on a daily, even hourly basis.

It’s clear that having large swathes of your population “not on the internet” is not a remotely sustainable situation anymore.

Many organisations have a “digital inclusion strategy”. This is absolutely laudable. But there’s often a sense that it’s a project without much in the way of organisational buy-in beyond the occasional anodyne platitude.

The current crisis has shown that it can no longer be seen as a “nice to have”. Public organisations need to be putting much greater emphasis and resource into making this happen.

We have seen in sharp relief that the internet is crucial for families to stay in contact, for reducing isolation and loneliness, and for businesses (like mine) to keep functioning.

Developing digital capacity in communities needs to be in the Top 3 priorities of any government, national or local, after this.

Lives, quite literally, depend on it.

Our community shows how necessary this is:

In Police Comms we’ve never had a crisis everywhere all at once, we normally rush to mutual aid one force so this is unusual. The forces that remained part of their community and kept them on board will be remembered for being human. Digital Comms is king – leaflets just died.

Hilary Hopker @HilaryHopker

I think many businesses have had to rapidly deploy online communication / collaboration platforms that were not a priority before, and may have taken years to implement under normal circumstances. We now have these tools to use going forward.

Matt Hurst @matthurst10

Hope Number 5: The “ASAP” culture comes to an end.

How many of you have been working on a project that was “urgent” and needed “ASAP”, all of a sudden to find out during mid-March 2020, that it wasn’t so “urgent” after all, once the reality and the gravity of our current situation came to light?

Crises happen, and they put other stuff on the back burner. That’s life. That’s comms.

But I really hope this puts things into perspective for the people that commission our work. Every project is dear to its owner. That’s fine. That’s the way it should be. But these projects, in reality, are very rarely as “urgent” as that understandably passionate colleague would have you initially believe.

Treating everything as “urgent” and “ASAP” creates a totally un-necessary atmosphere of panic; which is very rarely a situation that gives rise to good creativity

And the definition of “possible” in “as soon as possible”, looks like being around September 2020 as things currently stand…

So, let’s be stronger on this one. Let’s take people with us and reassure them that we understand their projects are important to them and the organisation, and we’ll make sure we do a proper job on them.

In short: Coronavirus comms = urgent and needed ASAP.

Everything else = less so.

Hope Number 6: Internal comms is given its rightful importance.

In large organisations, it should go without saying that in times of crisis, everyone needs to understand their role, and believe in the approach that’s being taken.

That’s why internal comms is so important in these situations.

But like all of these new habits we’re forming as organisations, this shouldn’t be considered the approach that is only adopted when we’re in crisis mode.

Our colleagues are our brand and are often the first impression that our public has of us.

Their comms needs should be given absolute priority in how we plan our communications, when the worst passes over.

Great point on this:

Internal communications will no longer be second to external – that it must trusted, meaningful, clear; that leaders need to invest personally in internal communication; recognition of internal communications as central to business resilience, workplace safety & public perception

Kate Jarman @KateBurkeNHS

Hope Number 7: National campaigns get a local flavour

During these early days of the crisis, whatever has (or hasn’t) been going on in the heart of government, the messaging put out by local authorities and NHS orgs has been remarkably consistent, and authoritative.

The campaign materials have appeared admirably quickly, and everyone has embraced the messaging.

Let’s be clear. This has been a remarkable effort on the part of comms people right across the country, and a triumph for clarity and adherence to national messaging.

If one thing has been missing a bit in this however, it has been localised versions of the messaging. The inherent problem with adopting national messaging and materials in such a hook, line and sinker fashion, is that local tone of voice can get lost, and it can appear to jar with organisations carefully crafted external personalities.

There is a better way, I feel.

What’s really important here is the shared outcome, and agreed framework for communicating about the situation, throughout its various stages; in order to build trust and contribute the national effort.

What is also important however, is that these messages are delivered in a way that is understandable to people in diverse locations. There are some great examples of this.

Not least this from the Prime Minister of Barbados!

And speaking of nuanced messaging, his is our Prime Minister adjusting the official messaging to local dialect for a more relatable message. Keeping it 💯

Katrina Marshall @kat_isha

This comes back to the trust issue. Let’s get to a point whereby we’re trusted to do what’s important in terms of our shared national outcomes; but given the freedom to express that in ways that build trust in our own communities.

Hope Number 8: Comms strategies will be built to survive contact with the real world

When we’re creating organisational comms strategies, we need to start thinking longer term, and taking into account all situations (including ones like this) where it will need to be applied.

I do a lot of comms strategy work, and it’s what I call “ensuring your comms strategy survives contact with the real world.”

Your comms strategy should be long term and it should be about building a personality, and (that word again) trust.

It should be aspirational, yes. But it should also be realistic.

So, if you have a comms strategy that relies on employing a particular tone of voice or utilising particular channels; it must be stress tested to ensure that in a crisis situation it still works.

Comms strategies that go out of the window when a crisis hits aren’t robust enough. If you abandon your tone of voice and way of doing things when something bad happens, it feeds confusion and chaos, and makes you look like you’re not in control.

So, let’s make sure we create comms strategies that we’re confident in – and we can stick to even when things get difficult.

Hope Number 9: Comms isn’t just prioritised for the bad times.

With every crisis, there is an opportunity.

Right now, our organisations and communities need us more than ever.

We’re a lifeline to people and our colleagues.

The whole thing would be falling apart without us.

Everyone, all of a sudden, values comms, and is recognising the strengths we bring to the table.

Let’s not let our leaders forget this moment.

Let’s push for more, not less, investment in our skills and people.

Let’s fight to stop being in the front of the queue when the next round of cuts come along.

Once things are better, let’s make sure everyone remembers how important we were during this crisis. I know everyone sees how important we are right now. But something tells me that unless we’re proactive about this, old habits will soon creep back in.

Long-winded sign-offs will be back. Requests to “commsify” badly written emails will be back. We’ll be getting told to do things against our better judgement, rather than being brought into the conversation early on to ask for our input.

Let’s not let this happen. On an organisational level, let’s stay strong and remind our leaders of this moment; but at an industry level, let’s club together more effectively to raise the profile of what we do, and to lobby for the support we need to do our jobs properly.

We all share the fear of “business as usual”:

My worry is that we fail to take the opportunity that this emergency offers. We need to have an industry strategy to ensure the new approach is embedded in the culture of our organisations, in our leadership skills and in the quality of new entrants

Paul Masterman @InterimBoy

My hope is that people we work with will embrace software more so we can cut down on emails, with an awareness of how inefficient they are for creating content and sign-off. Process is something people neglect, but its a game-changer.

Emily Jones @KindleKitchen

…so let’s make sure this change is permanent.

Hope Number 10:  Better and genuine partnership working

We simply cannot go on working in silos.

The public are expecting all of us to get together to help our communities get through this.

Organisations have longed talked about “service integration” and “partnership working”. This crisis has shown how dependent organisations in the public sphere are on each other.

Cuts to social care equal more people in A&E. More people in A&E means more people at risk of infection.

It’s easy to say, but difficult to implement. But us comms people can lead the way.

Different messages coming out at the same time, about the same issue, are inherently confusing for people.

We absolutely have to start coordinating across organisational boundaries much more effectively. Egos need to be left at the door. Competition needs to end.

We need to remind ourselves that we are our communities’ voices and advocates in our organisations, and we need to remind our leaders (and ourselves) that their needs come before ours.

That means better partnership working. It means doing what we’re doing now, but permanently.

And that is probably the take home message from all comms people to our organisations: let’s do what we’re doing now, but permanently.
That means:

  • More trust

  • More remote working

  • More investment

  • More long-term thinking

  • More realism

  • More partnership working.

We’ve shown it’s possible. Now let’s make it happen as business as usual; whenever “usual” ever happens.

Stay safe out there.


Thanks so much for everyone that contributed their thoughts to this. The response was overwhelming. I’m sorry I couldn’t include everyone’s tweets. But please follow the original thread on Twitter to see everyone’s invaluable contributions.

You can follow it all HERE.

Ben Capper is founder at Grey Fox Communications and Marketing Ltd. You can say hello on Twitter at @BenCapper

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Original source – comms2point0 free online resource for creative comms people – comms2point0

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