2020 was an intense year. In 2021, people all around the globe are still trying to adapt to how to work and their personal lives. Organizations are working to find the best ways to move forward while supporting their staff and their stakeholders. Things are still changing and 2021 will have its own lessons, but as we approach the year anniversary of the COVID-19 crisis beginning here in the U.S., we wanted to look back at how the last year has impacted how organizations think about communications and share a few communications lessons learned (or reinforced) in 2020.
Lesson one: It’s time to think about crisis communications differently.
The term “crisis communications” usually brings to mind reputation management and damage control—because that’s how you approach traditional crisis communications planning. But if the upheaval from 2020 made one thing clear, it’s this: a crisis is any significant event that can have a long-term, negative impact on your brand, your audience, or your staff.
It’s critical to have a plan in place to guide your organization’s communications strategy and planning as you respond to the COVID crisis and other related events—and there is a difference between a crisis communications plan in the traditional sense and the kind of communications response plan that has been necessary over the past year. Traditional crisis communications has a primary focus on damage control, reputation management, and external communications. In 2020, those things weren’t necessarily a priority. Instead, the main goal needed to be communicating critical information, facilitating information sharing, and supporting audiences (e.g., users, stakeholders, customers), both internally and externally.
In 2020, every organization had decisions to make about how and when it was appropriate to respond to current events. Here are a few questions to ask as you are planning a response to COVID or any other significant emerging event:
- Does this event directly affect the work of your organization and the way you deliver services or interact with your audiences?
- Does this event directly impact the day-to-day lives of your external users or customers?
- Does this event directly impact the day-to-day lives of your staff?
The answers to this question will change your approach. For example, for healthcare organizations dealing with the communications around COVID, the answer to the first question is “yes.” Healthcare organizations may be a central source for public information and will need to carefully plan their external communications strategy. On the other hand, if your organization is already mostly virtual and your day-to-day doesn’t change significantly, you may not need to make an external statement at all. In those cases, energy is better spent on making sure internal communications are clear and robust and that employees are supported.
Lesson two: Don’t neglect your internal audience.
A necessary focus on internal communications may be the most substantial difference from a traditional crisis communications PR response. Your internal audiences can be your champions because they interact with your organization more than anyone else. Research shows that staff are specifically depending on employers for accurate and timely information during the COVID-19 crisis. Make it clear to them what will be changing in their work lives or at your organization and what support they can expect.
Internal communications cannot be separated from a larger communications response strategy or plan. It has to be fully integrated and prioritized. In fact, the efficacy of an internal communications strategy should be a primary metric for success right now. You cannot do communications well around COVID if you are not doing internal communications well.
Lesson three: You cannot separate your communications response from the actions of your organization.
Everything you do is communication. Every action tells your audiences something about your organization and its ability to handle change. You can’t make a one-off statement and expect it to be effective or well-received unless there is also a change in policy or behavior.
2020 was a year of almost constant information overload. We were dealing with COVID-19, critical cultural conversations around racism and white supremacy, a fraught presidential election amongst many other stressful events small and large. Sometimes those things had to be addressed individually, but to be trusted, a communication process or system needed to acknowledge that shared context.
Any communications processes put in place have to be structured enough to enable you to act them quickly, but elastic enough to evolve, both with changing events, but also with what you are doing as an organization in practice. Your plan – and actions – should be :
- Flexible: Be willing to learn new things and adapt to new information. Be clear when things have changed and why.
- Consistent: It’s possible to be both flexible and consistent. Be sure your messaging to different audiences is aligned, even if it is not exactly the same.
- Relevant: Your messaging to different audiences won’t be exactly the same—tell people what they need to know when they need to know it. Time and attention are at a premium, so give people the information that they are looking for in a way they can act on quickly.
- Transparent: Be clear and honest about how your organization is handling things, especially internally.
- Authentic: Organizations are being judged right now—and rightly so—on how they communicate. People are looking for honesty, empathy, and sincerity.
You have an opportunity to define and differentiate your organization by creating a communications plan that demonstrates a clear understanding of your audience’s information needs and how you can support them. Make sure to prioritize internal communications and give people the information they need when they need it. Finally, always remember: your values as an organization, and what you are communicating to your audiences, are only as real as your actions. Focus on a sincere response and genuine interactions.
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