Authenticity and Trust: the role of communications professions in the current coronavirus crisis

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By Anne Nicholls

In the space of just a few weeks our world was transformed. In early March when the first death from the coronavirus, known as Covid-19, was announced life in the UK was carrying on much as normal. We were told to wash our hands thoroughly, cough into our arm pits, throw away tissues and self-isolate if we displayed any symptoms. Then it all changed in the middle of the month from a light tough ‘herd immunity’ strategy following the alarming report from Imperial College towards more stringent guidelines. We have moved at pace from voluntary compliance towards enforcement as the country was placed into lock down.

How has this affected the education and skills sector? Schools, colleges and universities have been shut, students and children have been sent home and only those whose parents are in the ‘key workers’ category or have special needs can attend school. Elsewhere across the sector within charities, awarding bodies and other organisations people are having to adapt to staff working remotely and continuing their business online, if they can. Many will be worried about survival.

So what is the role of communications professionals in our sector in the current crisis?

A key responsibility is to cascade the messages from the government to ensure the safety of staff, beneficiaries, volunteers and other stakeholders. “Education organisations have a civic duty to provide information and guidance,” says Ben Verinder, who has produced a webinar for the Association of Colleges.  He urges organisations to create a distinct communications plan and confine their communications to essentials. Messages need to be clear, prompt, authoritative, consistent and frequent. The language needs to be sensitive, reassuring and factual. So rather than announcing abruptly that a school, college or university is closing, say that face-to-face teaching has been suspended but teaching and learning is continuing online.

Ben advises people to carry out a stakeholder mapping exercise and then identify the appropriate communicate channels for each group. (See the footnote on resources.)   As well as communicating the official messages about social distancing there should be information about building closures, online teaching and assessment, exams and services, together with a list of key contacts and FAQs – all clearly signposted on the website.

“Communications must be fast and frequent with clear and consistent messages. You can’t wait until you have all the answers,” says crisis communications specialist and PR Academy lecturer Chris Tucker. “In a crisis we often believe the first message we hear, so it is crucial this is the right one. But it does not end there as these messages have to change as the crisis unfolds. Any change in message needs to be very carefully thought through and consistent across all channels and spokespeople.” (For more advice visit her blog and webinar.)

Chris stresses the need for simple messages and regular communications, but advises against information overload. People need to know what they should be doing now, so the messages need to be clear and unambiguous, she says. Having someone in authority (the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty is a good example) to deliver the messages is essential. It may be better to have the person at the top of an organisation as the official spokesperson even if they’re not the most natural speaker. Above all, communication must be authoritative, trustworthy, credible and calm.

Amidst everything else going on it’s easy to forget about internal communications with employees. Many will be worried about their job security, resistant to home working and anxious about their own health, both mental and physical. Some may be taking on duties for home schooling as well as normal work. Organisations have a duty of care that’s particularly important now.

Finally, what this crisis is showing is the vital role that reputation management plays in managing a crisis. People who think that PR is just about fluff, spin and getting media coverage will see public relations in a different light.

Checklist

 

  • Communication must be fast, frequent and clear.
  • Keep messages simple and unambiguous. Stick to the facts but show compassion and concern.
  • Don’t engage in speculation or debate. Don’t politicise the issue.
  • An information vacuum is the worst thing. Say something even if you don’t have all the answers.
  • Avoid information overload but don’t be afraid of repeating the same message.
  • Keep an eye on fast moving events. Messages may need to be altered as the situation changes.
  • People need to know what they should be doing. If you adopt self-efficacy and give people a role to play they will feel more in control.
  • Use all appropriate channels, both inbound and outbound, to communicate with your audiences. Ensure that you are engaging with students/pupils, trainees/apprentices, parents, governors/trustees, funders, beneficiaries, the local community, employees, contractors, volunteers and others. You will probably need newsletters specifically about coronavirus for different groups.
  • Your website should have a dedicated section accessible from the home page about the coronavirus with advice, resources, policies, FAQs and contact details.
  • Check all your automated communications including telephone voice messages. You don’t want people to be told that the school/college/university/building is open when it’s not. Nor do you want to be promoting new courses or products that people can’t access.
  • Check all your social media channels to make sure the content is appropriate. Monitor conversations. Respond to concerns promptly. Rebut fake news and rumours.
  • If you are an employer you have a duty of care towards employees, students, volunteers and beneficiaries. You will need policies on areas such as what to do if someone has coronavirus symptoms, needs to work from home or is a key worker.
  • You may be worried that your organisation or business will not survive. Ask your decision-makers what the worst-case scenario looks like. What is the most probable scenario? Review all the different scenarios and identify the features that would make a coronavirus crisis well-managed. Then, act and implement your plan of action.
  • Remember that clear, calm, authoritative, unambiguous communication based on sound evidence is vital.

Useful resources and information sources

Chris Tucker has written a blog for the PR Academy. She was also interviewed by Christine Richardson, Vice Chair of the CIPR’s Education & Skills group in a webinar. You can listen to it here.  

To hear Ben Verinder’s webinar register here.

Advice to further education colleges from the Association of Colleges

 

Advice to higher education institutions from Universities UK.

Advice to schools from the Government.

Government’s Coronavirus Action plan (3 March 2020)

The World Health Organisation (WHO)

CIPR’S Influence magazine has a number of articles.

The PRCA has a number of useful resources including a webinar.

The CERC model – Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication – is worth looking at. It was developed in the USA after 9/11. It has five phases: pre-crisis, initial event, maintenance, resolution and evaluation. Note that the present unprecedented crisis has slightly different phases: contain, delay, research, mitigate.

The Mendelow stakeholder analysis model.

PESO (Public Earned Social and Owned media)

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