We let the facts do the talking.

Our Take: Navigating COVID-19 the PR Way

If you’ve got nothing positive to say, keep quiet. A rather simplistic approach if you want to stay out of any public commentary. If the role of PR were just that, the communications industry would not be doing justice to its clients.

In times of adversity where so much is on the line, communication is the key to help navigate through the storm. It’s not about spinning the narrative, nor is it about scoring brownie points over your competitors.

Honesty, transparency, and being upfront with your audience is the utmost priority. And so too is the end game – how you come out of it will go a long way towards integrity, respect and most importantly, reputation.

That’s how corporates and organisations will be judged, certainly after deep analysis post the worst living scenario the world has ever experienced in modern time.

Unprecedented

An unprecedented crisis, financial turmoil, economic uncertainty and job insecurity are some of the key phrases that have stuck with us since the spread of coronavirus on an unimaginable global scale.

No company nor organisation would have ever seen the magnitude of what we are going through unfold so dramatically and so quickly.

Crises have come and gone, recessions have come and gone, but COVID-19 has already left a tragic and painful mark on our lives that will stay with us for years.

Coronavirus has become both a public health and PR issue. Businesses and organisations are following recommendations of public health bodies to provide timely and accurate information, to dispel misinformation, to protect employees and to make thoughtful decisions to prevent further spread of the virus.

Tens of thousands of lives have been lost around the world, millions of jobs have disappeared overnight, and hundreds of thousands of businesses are trying to stay afloat with the grim forecast that it could take at least two years, as a conservative estimate, to recover to pre-COVID-19 levels.

So much to digest. So much doom and gloom. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that in-house PR teams with limited resources have been snowed under, working around the clock, in crisis mode to support the demands of leadership seeking proactive communication plans to steer through this crisis.

With business and working practices severely impacted and our daily routines turned upside down, the onus is very much on the communication teams to deliver engaging ideas to demonstrate care and support and also find ways to drive business from the depths of despair. 

Communication Support

Messages need to be amplified, whether through traditional media, digital media or arguably the most dynamic of all, social media.

These channels are needed to raise awareness of the community spirit being instilled in all of us and revive much-needed sales in virtually every commercial secto, with a soft approach due to the sensitivity around COVID-19, however.

The property unit, the car, the newly fitted kitchen, the hotel room, and the airline seat are all under the microscope, no longer a purchase priority that poses a real challenge.

Internally, employees are as much a key stakeholder as the external audience. They’re looking for reassurance, empathy, a hand to hold, a listening ear, and leadership, anxious over their personal circumstances after being hit by a bolt out of the blue.

Daunting yes, taxing yes, but in such circumstances, a call out to partners in need has been a blessing for many organisations.

Strategic communication that helps wrestle through the crisis has never been more evident than today. PR and communication support used to be the first in line for budget cuts as firms fight for commercial survival.

Today, it’s exactly the opposite as companies have learnt their lessons from the past to actively communicate with their stakeholders during a crisis.

The agency can be best described as an army hitting the battle line, sleeves rolled up with their creativity and counselling put into action.

This is when communication agencies are viewed as real partners concurrently as their flexibility, value, and worth come to the fore. 

Digital: the way forward

The digital age we are living in has truly lived up to expectations, blowing open this communication medium — online activity, social media stories, video news releases, webinars, podcasts, blogs, animation videos, and more.

Digital campaigns are driving businesses to connect with people and enable us homebound to challenge ourselves to pursue new hobbies, such as learning how to cook, playing an instrument, re-engaging with family members, or exploring our creativity in arts and crafts.

As experts provide live-training seminars, life coaches offer tips on well-being, and celebrities spend more time on live connections with fans directly from their homes, people are making the most of their ‘new’ surroundings.

Digital creative campaigns have been drawn up by communication agencies in their living rooms, connecting with clients in their kitchens to deliver quick decision-making solutions.

For what would take days or weeks for feedback, the same-day turnarounds have only emphasised that the digital world is no longer an option but a critical communication platform through which to disseminate messages.

And it is messaging that is core to the narrative that agencies have been helping shape by targeting different stakeholders. A single generic message will not resonate with everyone.

The art of communication is segmenting. Think about the customer, the public, the government, the residential tenant, the landlord, the business owner, and the employee; They all have different needs with messaging targeted directly at them.

The UAE government has announced initiatives on an almost daily basis to protect its 8 million citizens and residents. The impact of the lockdown needs interpreting with messaging tweaked in ways to hit home with all.

Employee Communications

Crafting of internal messages is not just a reassuring letter from the top. It’s the big ‘thank you’ to the workforce for adhering to the strict self-hygiene measures in place.

It’s the do’s and don’ts on employee health, safety, and welfare and for those around them; they need to refrain from social media commentary on COVID-19 at such a sensitive time as this will be a criminal offence handed down by the government.

The need to communicate in more than one language to workers on construction sites or in workshops, where English and Arabic are foreign to them, and the need to convey messages that can be easily understood is integral – an infographic or an easy-to-read visual explaining the protocols other than standard emails.

The need to be prepared for a crisis.

An employee or customer contracting COVID-19, there’s been an outbreak of flu-like symptoms at the workplace, one or more deaths caused by COVID-19, the impact of the lockdown on businesses – the scenarios are endless for which a concerted crisis communication plan is necessary.

There’s no breathing space. Crisis communication manuals are out of date. Not easy to navigate, lack the latest scenarios and, for sure, fail to have adequate statements to cover the eventualities we are all facing today.

With media being a key stakeholder, readiness through reactive and proactive statements prepared in advance go a long way to ease the stress on an already pressured communications department.

It’s a huge wake-up call with the agency stepping in as a vital resource and all hands-on deck to update the manual, sparing the internal team of the tremendous man-hours needed to build the document.

When looked back upon, the scenarios will be an eye-opener for firms seeking to carry out, if not already regularly, ‘table-top’ crisis communication exercises to cover any eventuality. 

Business Continuity

Leaders will reflect on how they handled the crisis with their stakeholders, and leaders are the ones who stakeholders want to hear from the most.

Almost all leaders have been receptive to agency counselling and support, listening and taking in valued advice. Yet it’s not only the current but future scenarios that are on the table.

Communication around business continuity needs considering beyond COVID-19. What is the exit strategy once it is lifted? What steps can be taken to recover from the fall-out? Our reputation has been hit, so how do we overcome this?

Agencies are now working with clients to prepare them for the next phase of the communication strategy to rebuild their business and connections with stakeholders as well as build on the trust and commitment of the workforce.

The art of communication is not new. It’s the adaptation of communication that is new in an environment which so few of us have ever experienced in our lifetime.

The key takeaway, therefore, is that partnership is crucial to navigating through testing times like these.

Updesh Kapur is Director of Strategy at Cicero & Bernay Public Relations, an independent PR agency headquartered in Dubai offering new-age public relations consultancy to the UAE and across the MENA region. | www.cbpr.me