COVID-19 means we must communicate better than ever

There are crucial differences between communicating in an ‘ordinary’ crisis and communicating in a pandemic.

COVID-19, Ruth Callaghan

Ruth Callaghan 19 Mar 2020
3 mins
COVID-19 communications

We are currently living through more-than strange times – the COVID pandemic has put much of the planet in an unprecedented situation.

In the face of a crisis that is largely beyond our control and with the potential for widespread panic and the spread of misinformation, communication has never been more important.

But there are crucial differences between communicating in an ‘ordinary’ crisis and communicating in a pandemic, and the challenges we are seeing at a national level reflect this.

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Pandemic communications are unusual in that when the crisis appears on the horizon it is hard to motivate action, and any early steps you take may be seen as overreaction. Once it hits, though, any delay or downplaying of the risk is seen as putting lives at risk. You have high outrage, high engagement and fearful people looking for someone to blame.

So how do you communicate around an issue that nobody has ever seen before and where so many of the answers are still unknown and details are rapidly evolving?

Here are some simple starting points.

Be consistent
The way you operate your business has either changed significantly during the past week or is likely to change significantly very soon. This will require significant communication, both externally and internally.

Whether you’re talking to clients, customers, stakeholders, staff or the public at large, you need to explain not only that things are changing, but why they’re changing. In the best-case scenario, you’ll be ahead of the curve and able to explain that you’re acting proactively in everyone’s best interests. If not, explain succinctly what you are responding to and why the changes have been necessary.

Ideally, changes like working-from-home are ones that you’ll have already tried and tested and which your clients and staff will be comfortable with. If not, your communications need to explain which aspects of your operations will be business-as-normal and which ones won’t.

It’s vital these communications are ongoing, regular and, where necessary, can be rolled out quickly. COVID-19 is a crisis that will keep evolving.

Watch our full webinar on communicating around COVID-19

Be honest
The temptation might be to want to provide all the answers. The reality is that you can’t. But the good news is that nobody expects you to.

Because of the pace at which events are unfolding, it’s perfectly fine – indeed advisable – to state in your communications that there are things you don’t know. People will appreciate your honesty.

What they will also rely on is that you stay properly abreast of developments and base your communications on the best possible information. Closely monitor updates from trustworthy sources like government agencies and the World Health Organisation and don’t be afraid to point people to external links that feature the most-up-to-date information.

The potential for misinformation in relation to COVID-19 is real. Ensuring your communications are accurate and trustworthy is a good starting point to minimising this risk for your business.

Be human

Don’t underestimate the impact of this crisis on people’s mental wellbeing. If you’re feeling the stress of COVID-19, then many others will be too.

The key concept here is empathy. Just as you’d express empathy for anyone suffering from the coronavirus, those impacted by its flow-on effects also need your empathy – particularly from an internal engagement perspective.

In some cases, your employees will have gone from a workplace in which they are around hundreds of people daily to being at home by themselves. The feeling of isolation can be acute.

You need to find ways to engage with them that helps provide the human interaction that will be missing. Rather than cancelling meetings because nobody can be physically present, reschedule them as video meetings – there are plenty of programs that can help you do this. Rather than sending an email, think about whether you can make a phone call. Encourage staff to regularly check in on their colleagues. Embedding this type of behaviour from the top of an organisation down can help alleviate concerns around isolation.

COVID-19 is a global crisis but as risk expert Peter Sandman has pointed out, most of the key responses to it must be local. The workers you have now are the ones who will help you get through this situation.

You need to look after them and their families.

  • Purple will be running a webinar on COVID-19 Tech in a Lockdown at 1pm on Friday March 20 – click HERE to register.

Ruth Callaghan is Purple’s Chief Innovation Officer and a crisis communications expert with more than 20 years’ experience in corporate communications and journalism. Contact Ruth

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Ruth Callaghan More from author

Ruth uses two decades of experience as a media strategist, communications adviser and journalist to develop, deliver and distribute messages that cut through.

She specialises in providing strategic digital and content services for clients, using the principles of newsworthy and engaging content to tell compelling stories. She is a skilled media trainer and works with professionals both within and outside the communications industry to develop their digital, writing and media skills.

Ruth’s work in this field has included developing digital and inbound marketing strategies for clients, including use of lead generation software, content marketing and social media. She works with emerging technologies including virtual reality in campaigns and continues to write for publications including the Australian Financial Review.

When not distracted by the next shiny digital tool, Ruth likes to holiday in cooler climates with her family or hang out with her stubborn Scottish Terrier Maisie.

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