Managing communications around coronavirus requires a balance of structure and humanity, agree IABCLA members. Last week, we held a “COVID-19 Comms Tactics” webinar where Los Angeles-based professional communicators came together to share insights they’ve gathered while navigating the past few weeks.
The discussion was led by Rachel Mann and Julie Wright, both IABCLA board members. Rachel is vice president of communications at Emburse, and Julie is president and founder of (W)right on Communications. They shared several “aha” moments during the webinar:
1) Structure amid disruption
COVID-19 is unlike anything we’ve experienced, and we’re in uncharted territory. This global pandemic is unprecedented and disruptive but, through a strictly communications lens, COVID-19 isn’t entirely different from any other crisis an organization might face, which is reassuring (yeah, we got this!). Don’t set out to reinvent the wheel. Instead, lean on your standard communications protocol. As part of a crisis communications plan, you develop a clear strategy, craft cohesive messages, engage key stakeholders, establish timelines, and identify reliable sources for facts and data. Now is the time to rely on the foundational elements you have in place to manage through this crisis. Operating from these guidelines keeps people focused and grounded, and allows your comms function to execute without getting overwhelmed.
“Everything you have in your communications toolkit is there for a reason,” explained Rachel. “The plan is in place. You just have to activate that plan, be the calm in the storm, and lean on the process — it works.”
2) “Necessity is the mother of invention”
People are exercising their creativity right now, and Rachel shared ways that companies are approaching things differently in light of coronavirus:
– Virtual Events: As organizations have postponed or cancelled their in-person conferences and events, companies have been pushed to think differently and pivot from their original plans. At Emburse, the team quickly shifted to hosting virtual sessions, and saw a large number of participants at their first virtual event. While the shift to virtual sessions comes out of necessity, there are important takeaways for a post-pandemic world. Perhaps more organizations will consider a mix of physical and online events and activities as standard part of their business.
– Social Platforms: Emburse uses Slack and created a channel called “Virtual Water Cooler.” Employees post content about their children, their pets, their home office — there’s even a team member who performs daily with a guitar to spread a bit of cheer.
“Our Virtual Water Cooler allowed employees around the globe to connect as a community while working remotely, and it has added a level of levity and fun in an otherwise stressful time,” she said. “An important part of communications is remembering the human connection, and need for empathy and compassion during these times. As a result of working from home and sheltering in place, people are craving personal connection — they just want to talk to others.”
3) Messaging changes with an evolving situation
As the COVID-19 situation evolves, so does the messaging for all target audiences. While the standard practice in communication is to keep messaging consistent, in this fluid and dynamic environment, it’s important to keep a pulse on current news, and adjust messaging to ensure it’s up to date for all stakeholders.
“The messaging needs to evolve and be tailored for each target audience. You have to refine the tone you need to take with employees, with the media, with customers, with partners — it’s different for each stakeholder depending on what matters to them,” Rachel explained.
For example, in times of disaster, the media isn’t interested in promotional product or sales messaging — they care about the broader community and what companies are doing to help others during the crisis. Organizations need to think “people first.”
1) Virtual connection is real connection
Julie expected online conferencing to be distant and cumbersome, but it has turned out to provide an even more intimate view into her coworkers’ lives. Working from home on platforms like Zoom has allowed her to appreciate the full humanity of her colleagues — folks are no longer merely a job title, but a spouse, a mother or father, a pet owner. She especially enjoys seeing everyone’s personality on display during weekly team meetings.
“What does it mean for the future? We can’t unring that bell,” she said. “Now that we’ve become accustomed to this, will we come back to this with a deeper connection to our employees? Will we embrace remote working and get more comfortable with it going forward? I’m pretty sure we will.”
2) Pandemic in terms of the “Five Stages of Grief”
In her 1969 book “On Death and Dying,” Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the “Five Stages of Grief.” Julie applied this model to the current state of affairs, as her job as a communicator is to move people through these periods.
– Denial: In early March, some of Julie’s clients still wanted to communicate to customers they were operating “business as usual,” despite indications of the pandemic likely heading to the U.S. She, therefore, advised stakeholders not to indicate such as it might damage their credibility.
– Anger: Some clients responded to the looming crisis with aggravation, particularly at the suggestion meetings or travel should be cancelled for reasons of health and safety. Her reasoning: “The virus is here, so let’s get ahead of it.”
– Bargaining: Julie noted it was positive when employees or stakeholders arrived at this point as it indicated progress was being made. She was able to convince them painful decisions had to be made in order to save lives and incorporate that in messaging to help their stakeholders, too.
– Depression: Bargaining can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and that’s when she introduced resources to clients to help others pull through. It’s important to let people know plans are underway even if there are no definitive outcomes at a particular moment.
– Acceptance: Leaders, decision makers, and communicators want to make decisions from a place of acceptance — “this is what’s happening, this is what we must do.” This will allow leaders to have greater clarity in developing messages, in introducing them, and doing it in a way respectful of whatever emotional turmoil stakeholders may be feeling.
“As much as we have the crisis templates and we know what to do, the unprecedented nature of Coronavirus is truly unbelievable,” she said. “Using this psychological framework helps me, makes me feel more purpose-driven in communications, and it gives me a neutral way to talk to clients and coworkers.”
3) Even in the virtual world, presentation still matters
Julie quickly realized she needed to “up her Zoom game” when, in recent weeks, she and her team began conducting business entirely by way of videoconference.
She suggests various ways to make the best of online meetings: the computer screen should be at eye level, blinds need to be drawn to avoid backlight, shy away from a distracting background, and make sure audio and online connections are solid.
“I need to make sure to let the technology do its job, and that I’ve stepped up to meet this opportunity,” she said.
As always, IABCLA will continue to pass along “aha” moments and other communications insights — and we ask you to do the same. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are a chapter member and would like to share your expertise with our community. We also encourage you to utilize our LinkedIn Group — IABC Los Angeles Chapter — as a means of support and connection during this trying period.