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June 8, 2020

Lessons in Crisis Communication During a Pandemic: Webinar Explores Communication Management and COVID-19

How do you manage crisis communications and juggle public relations during a pandemic? Consider these tips from the experts, as discussed in a recent Quick Connections webinar on crisis communication hosted by University College at the University of Denver: Mitigate audience assumptions, share knowledge, engage and entertain your audiences through different platforms, and keep leaders in the limelight.

“Crisis communication, no matter how hard you try, you can’t completely plan for it,” said Cindy Cragg, panel moderator and academic director for the Communication Management program. “The best we can do is to figure out the different layers and understand that at any point, it could change and we have to pivot again. It’s certainly an interesting time that I don’t think any of us will forget.”

While most panelists’ workplaces had created crisis communication plans, none really had one for something like COVID-19.

“We had a crisis communication plan in place because we were in charge of the disaster recovery of the floods of 2013,” said panelist Natriece Bryant, deputy director of the Executive Director’s Office at the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, and adjunct instructor at University College. “But, no one planned for a mass pandemic. So it was definitely an interesting change we had to make philosophically and policy wise.”

However, out of this unexpected, ever-evolving situation has come some important takeaways for communications professionals.

Mitigate Audience Assumptions

Perhaps the most critical takeaway is that communicators must listen intently to their audiences, both internal and external, and set any assumptions aside. This is especially true when it came to accessing technology during quarantine (and basically any other time).

“I can’t make the assumption that someone has access to internet and can go online,” said Bryant, who added she kept select face-to-face communication channels to serve those who don’t.   

In addition, it’s also imperative to have no assumptions that audiences understand all the information that they need to make decisions during a crisis. Bryant related that her agency focuses on translating communication to different languages, as well as translating complex information into easy-to-understand messaging, in order to reach as many people as possible.

Panelist Peter Jakel, vice president of Strategy for LinnellTaylor, and adjunct instructor at University College, also found this to be true for his clients in the rental apartment industry. Rent and issues surrounding it have been thrust to the forefront of the pandemic issues, and it became clear that the industry is not well-understood. The typically press-quiet rental industry found itself needing to effectively communicate the basics of how it works so customers and others have knowledge to make informed decisions.

Community Connection

As people are learning their new normal stay-at-home routines, it’s become imperative to explore ways to stay engaged and connected with audiences, as well. To ensure organizations continue to deliver on their brand promises, communications professionals have pivoted to using new platforms to share messages and community involvement.

Where once text or email may have sufficed, now video messages via platforms like Zoom have become a more commonplace way to convey information.

“What has been interesting for us is the amount of communication we are performing. Video seemed to be more receptive, especially when parents are getting so many emails from teachers,” said panel Lucy Murphy, director of communications at St. Anne’s Episcopal School and Communication Management program student. She added that video conferencing also reduces her content creation workload and significantly cuts down the workflow for producing quick messaging.

And while video has become more popular, all panelists stressed the importance of not relying on just one channel to reach out. For example, social media has also taken front stage to create the community touch needed while audiences are at home.

Panelist Ashley Forest, deputy communications director of the Nevada Attorney General’s Office, and Communication Management program student, said that her agency increased its social media presence to disseminate messages, but more importantly, as a community-building and public relations tool. Through hashtags, social videos featuring the attorney general, and information of the goodwill the agency is spreading through the community, the sites are keeping the audience both entertained and engaged.

“We wanted to ensure our social not only gives information for community but also engages our family members,” said Forest. “We try not to focus on the pandemic only. Let’s be innovative, let’s be creative, let’s find a way to join our community together and be happy when so much is going on.”

Leadership Forward

In terms of building community, it is also important that people know they are heard and cared for. Ensuring audiences, both internal and external, regularly communicate with leadership has played a huge role in current crisis communication plans. Whether it be social media videos with government officials, Zoom meetings from principals to parents of students, or managers video conferencing with employees, knowing that leadership is there and cares is invaluable. And it is expected, according to Bryant.

“The big piece is having leadership in the limelight makes people feel a little bit more comforted,” said Murphy.

You can watch the entire webinar, as well as other Quick Connections webinars, on the University College Vimeo page.

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