COVID-19 COMMUNICATION: POSITIVELY TRANSFORMATIONAL
As a strategic communications firm, crisis response is one of our core services. Our expertise comes from having been on the front lines of managing communications in a variety of high-profile crises in the private and nonprofit sectors as well as advising clients on sensitive issues and supporting them through crisis situations.
That said, we’ve never been so humbled by a crisis as we are by COVID-19 – its global reach, the speed of its spread, and its devastating impact. While our foundational experience certainly applies to this situation – and is guiding our daily efforts to help our clients plan and communicate effectively – we feel like we are writing a new playbook for a radically different and unpredictable world, even as we execute from the existing playbook, which had not long ago seemed groundbreaking with the advent of social media’s influence.
When we deliver crisis leadership training, we always start with what we call the crisis paradox: the fact that crises are wildly destructive and positively transformational.
Right now, it’s easy to see the destructive impact of COVID-19 on every organization and individual on the planet. And that destruction is magnified by our collective uncertainty; we simply don’t know how long this will last and how much of what’s happening will become the new normal – making COVID-19 more wildly destructive than any crisis we’ve imagined.
What’s harder to see – with any clarity – is the positive transformation that will surely come from this unprecedented global pandemic. Our hope comes from the stories of ingenuity, collaboration and generosity of spirit, and the growing chorus of “We’re in this together,” which just might be a signal that COVID-19 will transform the world into a kinder, more inclusive place for all.
But before we think about the future, we need to focus on the now. As federal and state governments mandate changes by the day and positive cases of the novel coronavirus increase, organizations large and small are grappling with decisions they never expected to encounter – significant operational, economic and human resources decisions … and in some cases, decisions about their strategic survival. All of which is making clear, fact-based and frequent communication job #1.
In the face of a crisis that’s changing at a pace we’re all working hard to keep up with, here are five things we’re seeing that give us confidence that positive transformation will rise out of COVID-19’s destruction:
- Organizational leaders are prioritizing communication with their employees, providing clear direction and support, appreciation and genuine empathy. They aren’t hesitating to talk about mental health and available resources, are quickly implementing policies to protect employees’ health and financial well-being, – and they’re being deliberate about recognizing and thanking frontline employees. These actions are especially important in the context of trust. In a recent Edelman Trust Barometer survey about the coronavirus, 51 percent of U.S. respondents said they trust that their employer is well-prepared, while 43 percent said that they trust that the country is – underscoring the importance of employers’ actions and the power of effective communication – on employee trust, now and in the future. In the same survey, 63 percent said they are looking for daily, or more frequent, updates from their employers about the virus.
- Organizations are shifting from “business as usual” to “COVID-19” mode in rapid fashion, with thoughtfulness and by benchmarking others. They are recognizing the importance of stopping or modifying in-flight messaging to make way for communications that are relevant in a world focused on social distancing and isolation. These efforts will likely prompt improvements in organizations’ messaging and communication channels that will be of value beyond this crisis.
- Leaders are thinking about all of their stakeholders, broadening their use of technology and channels to stay connected. Unusual times demand increased transparency, resourcefulness and humility, and leaders are rising to the occasion, pushing themselves to be more visible and engage more frequently – and in new ways – with their customers, investors and communities. Those who do this especially well – with an emphasis on listening to their many audiences – will reap lasting benefits.
- Leaders are listening and working together to do the right thing. Much like the aftermath of 9/11, the working world seems just a bit more open, receptive and kinder now that we’re all fighting an invisible enemy together. We’re witnessing a greater willingness to consider and collaborate on new ideas and innovative solutions. Relationships are being formed through this crisis that in many cases will be enduring, creating future possibilities.
- Leaders are recognizing the demands placed on their communications team and are looking for ways to alleviate stress. Message alignment and clarity are critical, but COVID-19 communication is too much to place on the shoulders of any single individual. Organizations are identifying back-up support from within or outside the organization and structuring response efforts in a way that allows individuals to step away and recharge. And sometimes the best role a leader can play is to help the communications team say “no” to requests coming at them from all directions. Not everything in a crisis is a crisis.
While no one knows exactly how this pandemic will change not only organizational communications but life as we know it, experts are already beginning to contemplate and forecast potential impacts, revealing the positively transformational nature of crises.