COVID Communications - how to communicate in a pandemic 

02/04/2020

In light of the recent UK lockdown and COVID-19 outbreak, Atticus Communications has been working remotely whilst continuing to help clients through these unprecedented times.

The Coronavirus has swiftly changed the daily lives of everyone across the UK and the world – both personally and professionally. Last month, the UK Parliament passed the Coronavirus Bill in which both central and local government were bestowed unprecedented powers.

Measures in the Bill include allowing the police to force those infected with COVID-19 to self-isolate, as well as banning social gatherings and even fining those deemed making ‘non-essential’ travel. The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said that the magnitude of COVID-19 required the UK to implement “extraordinary measures of the kind never seen before in peacetime”. Following significant push-back in the House of Commons, however, including from Conservative backbenchers, the Government announced that these powers will be subject to a vote every six months.

In this blog, we highlight how the outbreak of COVID-19 may shape the communications industry, and how organisations, in terms of their communications efforts, can best respond to the crisis.

Impact on the Communications Industry

The impact of COVID-19 is likely to be sustained and will be significant across the wider economy -  including the PR and communications industry. The pandemic has already led Coca-Cola GB and Virgin for example to suspend all UK brand marketing and advertising activities. PRWeek has reported that three in four UK PR agency chiefs are now seeing a significant slowdown in new business opportunities, clients suspending accounts, as well as dropping them. In the coming months, many organisations will be considering avenues to cut costs as they come under pressure to shore up balance sheets devoid of once-reliable income streams.

In addition to the withdrawal of new business opportunities, agencies are having to shift the way in which they operate. In the coming months, most, if not all, media launches and events will be cancelled or postponed, business travel restricted, with all work continuing to be executed remotely from home. Industry fundamentals, however, remain the same. Clients, probably now more than ever, will recognise the importance of strategic communications as brands seek to differentiate, relate to their audience, demonstrate how they are adjusting to the ‘new normal’ and supporting customers. What is more than likely, however, is a fundamental review, not just in communications but across wider industry, of the role and set-up of offices and the benefits of working from home. As a result of this crisis, never again can it be said ‘you have to be in the office to perform that task.’

Despite these challenges, it is imperative that communications professionals demonstrate their added-value to clients. Our team has compiled some top tips for organisations to help deal with the crisis from a communications perspective.

Monitoring

In an ongoing crisis, keeping up to speed with the most accurate and pertinent information, while all around you are ‘transmitting’, is key. As the government operates a day-to-day response to the crisis, it is crucial to ensure that key announcements and their impact on business and employees are clearly summarised and explained. The fast-moving nature of this crisis necessitates an ability for businesses to change working practices at extremely short notice. Atticus is helping clients by providing daily monitoring updates so that senior leadership are constantly updated, and in turn, are best placed to make important decisions for their organisations.

Continuous communication is key

Given business and employment uncertainty, keeping up internal communications is crucial. Workforce employees are looking at the same newscasts and social media as you and will be wondering what it all means for them and their continued employment. One cannot over-communicate to the very people who drive and make your business what it is.

Subject experts are now more than ever in demand. People want to hear from the experts and their take on what happens next within that sector. Evidence of this can be seen in Number 10 Downing Street’s daily press briefing, The Prime Minister and Cabinet members brief the press-pack, albeit now virtually, flanked by the Chief Scientific Adviser and Chief Medical Officer. Part of this exercise, however, is an insurance strategy to enable them to say, ‘we are being led by the science.’ Corporate leaders also need to ‘front up’, showcase what they stand for, and why they are making the decisions they are.

Message clarity is equally important. The UK government’s response to the crisis and advice to the country on what is and is not permissible has not been as ‘tight’ as it should. Organisations need a dedicated member of staff or team responsible for constructing and delivering key messages to all stakeholders, both external and internal. The importance of effective communications with customers cannot be overstated. If there are product delays, service provision difficulties, or any other issues – say so. Reiterate the importance of clients to your business and build that brand loyalty.  

Media Relations

Every company in the country is ramping up communications about how they are responding to the crisis. Journalists aren’t physically in the newsroom meaning that your media pitch needs to be even more catchy than normal. It is also crucial to ensure that your message has the right tone of voice and fit. That also extends to dedicated spokespeople. Having empathy for what is going on in the world, especially on the frontline, is so important. We are not operating in normal times. If your spokesperson isn’t well-versed in speaking to the press, media train them. Agencies like Atticus can provide tailored media training of key spokespersons to ensure when they go into ‘battle’ they are prepared. One must also think outside the box – as we near the third week of lockdown journalists will be keen to discover news stories that go beyond how your company procedures are impacting both staff and customers alike.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

‘Social Purpose,’ formally known as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) should be the principal lens applied to all communications at this time. How is your company enhancing society, its working environment, or in this specific case, assisting those on the frontline risking their lives fighting the disease and nursing us back to health. The public demands and expects that large corporates specifically will think beyond their bottom lines and assist in the effort. When the dust settles, those who haven’t will be remembered for having not. Meaningful CSR means connecting­­ with communities and stakeholders, not just an improved brand image and recognition. In 2020, companies that are defined by and link their service or product to improving wider society have stronger brands, better customer loyalty and are seen to be more transparent and trustworthy.

Moving forward

The threat posed by COVID-19 is likely to have a lasting impact on the way businesses function, regardless of sector. How firms adapt during and after this crisis will be key to ensuring success going forward. It is fair to say nothing will ever be the same again. Atticus is proud to have a deep history of providing strategic crisis communications support to both individuals and organisations across a variety of industries. We are all in this fight together. We stand ready to help you. Reach out.

To find out more about how Atticus Communications can help guide your organisation through the COVID-19 crisis, please get in touch: info@atticuscomms.com