Although the COVID-19 pandemic has derailed any resemblance of normalcy in our professional lives, it is important to understand how we as communications professionals can push our organizations’ messages and our clients’ messages forward during these uncertain times. On April 1, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) livestreamed a webinar, “Effective Communications in a Long-Duration Crisis: Keeping Things Together During COVID-19,” hosted by Communications Strategist Doug Levy. Levy, who was Chief Communications Officer at Columbia University Medical Center during the 2014 Ebola crisis, shared his best practices for communications during an extended emergency.
Few communications plans anticipate irregular operations starting suddenly and lasting weeks or months. The times in which we are living are quite unprecedented, and Levy outlined the following approaches to help us navigate the volatile landscape.
Principles of Communication During COVID-19
Above all else, communications professionals must make sure that whatever message is sent makes sense for the person (audience) on the other end. Regardless of the type of post or topic, you must recognize that the impact of COVID-19 varies from person-to-person depending on their career, location and economic status. What used to be normal will never return, and whoever is reading the message could interpret it very differently from someone else.
Part of our role as communicators is that everything going out needs to be 100 percent accurate. Communication is not just what you say, it’s your actions, as well. For example, a CEO posting a video on social media saying “stay safe” is a perfectly appropriate message; however, if they are on a yacht or have their mansion in the background, it may feel hollow. Many people have lost their jobs and can’t afford to pay their rents/mortgages and may deem even the most positive message as negative given the context.
Balancing “Business as Usual” with Empathy and Flexibility
Tone is critically important. Now more than ever, double checking your reason for communicating a message is paramount. Knowing that folks are being bombarded with messaging around COVID-19, your target audience should be narrower than usual, and you should always confirm that you are the right source of information for what you are sending.
When providing an update on your company, Levy maintains that the first items that should be addressed to the public are any immediate physical and other risks to life, health or property. At the start of the crisis, you should first let people know that your staff is OK (employees should come first), wish the recipient well and provide a status update on the organization. You can then inform your audience of what happens next with the organization and how things are changing (e.g., notifications on event postponements).
Following the initial message, all previously planned “business as usual” marketing, social media posts or sales outreach must be reviewed to confirm if they should proceed or be postponed. In all cases, you must adapt the message to the current environment and be cognizant of your audience’s mindset and how people are feeling at this time.
According to Levy, the “Golden Rule” to follow is to only put out messages when you have something of value to say. Instead of “about you” messaging, acknowledge where the pain points are and do not present yourself (or organization) as the victim.
– Joey Telucci