Peter Gilheany, director at Forster Communications, shares advice for charity leaders on how to do communication right during the crisis.
COVID-19 – such an anodyne, anonymous collection of letters but one that has thrown the world off its axis and fundamentally changed millions of lives at a bewildering speed. It has also spawned an avalanche of communication from pretty much every organisation under the sun, probably including your own. If you are not currently self-isolating from this deluge you soon will be and so will everyone else.
So, as a charity leader, you’re faced with a dilemma – if you are at home then one of the few things you can actually do is communicate, but what, how often and to whom? First, you need to recognise the urgency of doing something but also the fundamental need to make sure it was the right thing to do, and then you need to be pretty ruthless in terms of prioritising who you seek to engage.
Driving all this is the interplay between the urgency to communicate something and doing the right thing. In times of crisis, we abhor a vacuum. Last Friday, the PM chose not to go ahead with the 5pm press conference that has become a daily fixture of the crisis and a real focus for people seeking information and reassurance, instead speaking at 8.30. That was a mistake that caused 3 hours of needless stress and anxiety for many people, which could have been avoided simply by holding a press conference at the usual time and giving a straightforward update and letting people know something more substantial was coming. It betrayed a lack of empathy on the part of the government. Two simple principles should govern the decision on when and what to communicate – being thoughtful and being useful.
Those two principles should be driving the communication and action by charity leaders seeking to be supportive as we face up to this unprecedented challenge. So, here’s some simple tips for how you can apply those two qualities to what you are saying and doing in response to COVID-19.
- Think about all the audiences you want to engage but don’t forget the most important ones, your own employees, suppliers and beneficiaries. There have been quite a few instances already of organisations saying one thing to external audiences – “we’re here for you”, “take care, stay safe” – and acting in entirely to opposite way with their own staff and the other audiences who make up your friends and family group.
- Being thoughtful should run through everything organisations are saying and doing. At a fundamental level, it is about walking in the shoes of the people the organisation is seeking to engage and thinking about what it can do to help them from their perspective, not its own.
- Think before you do or say anything – will what you want to do have the impact you want it to have? Are there any unintended consequences of doing this? Are we the best-placed organisation to do this?
- At its most basic, if you have nothing useful to say, then don’t say anything. People are drowning in communication. If you are going to add to it all make sure there’s some value in it for the people you are reaching out to
- If you have a good idea about how you can help, check to see if anyone else has had the same idea or is doing something related or useful to your idea. Collaborate with them or endorse and promote what they are doing rather than competing with them. This is particularly important if you are going to encourage people to volunteer or support a specific project. There are lots of different schemes and programmes springing up all the time, so signpost the ones that have momentum behind them and the infrastructure in place before you even think about starting up your own thing.
- If you decide to reach out to your audiences and offer to support them, make sure you are in a position to follow through on that and provide the support you have promised. The last thing people need is to follow up on an offer like that only to discover the help isn’t really there
- When the situation changes, change your communications and approach. It’s been fashionable for a few years now for organisations to communicate and act like they are always Beta. Well, now pretty much the entire world is in always Beta mode, so keep an eye on what you saying and doing, change it if the circumstances have changed, tell people you’ve changed it and explain why. This also means reviewing what you have communicated previously and removing it if it is now entirely inappropriate in the current circumstances.
Being thoughtful and useful are qualities that should pretty much underpin communications at any time, but as principles they probably have never been as important as they are right now.