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It’s PR, not ER…until it is: being a communicator during COVID-19

Bastion RM’s CEO Clare Gleghorn has published a piece on the power of strong, clear communications during the current health and economic crisis. Clare also explores the real life-threatening consequences that poor and mismanaged communications can have on entire communities.

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It’s PR, not ER…until it is: being a communicator during COVID-19

Clare Gleghorn – Chief Executive Officer, Bastion Reputation Management

Many years ago, a delightful young PR professional I worked with used to look over at me on a Friday afternoon (the traditional time slot for the crisis call) as she was pouring her first glass and say, “Clare, it’s PR not ER, darling”. Her intention was to give me comfort, to let me know that whatever urgent communications issue I was dealing with for my client was not life-threatening, and would surely pass. 

It’s that throwaway line people often use to offer some perspective when you work in comms. You know the one, “well, at least nobody died.”

Except sometimes, they do. Over the last couple of months and in particular the last three weeks, we’ve seen government leaders throughout the world at their best and worst in communicating what is going on. Most of us are still merely trying to comprehend the complete upheaval in our own lives, let alone understand and follow social-distancing measures and even less so feeling any level of comfort or safety in their words. 

Leaders or noise?

At their best, they have provided clarity. They have been firm. Think Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and his constant, sobering repetition of the Stay At Home message. They have offered words of comfort to those grieving the loss of loved ones, the loss of connection to the people who matter most, the loss of livelihoods and seemingly the loss of everything that only days before was simply a given. Think New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. They have brought joy and levity and they have provided calm, considered, and rational leadership. They have been a safe harbour. Did I mention Jacinda Ardern?

At their worst however, their words have confused, outraged, alarmed, panicked, and frightened us. They have obfuscated, inflamed tensions, played down the seriousness, played into bias, misled, denied and deflected. At their most terrifying, what they have communicated has undoubtedly contributed to the alarming numbers of infection and deaths we’re seeing emerging in some nations. Quite literally, people will die if we communicate poorly. 

A steep learning curve

We, like everyone, have been learning about the impact of this health and economic crisis and its impact on our clients, their industries, their staff, and their customers. Approaches to crisis communications that are considered industry best practice and would once sustain an organisation for the immediate term, are being rewritten and revised as new information, new behaviours and new ways of working inform our decision making.

Over the last eight weeks, we’ve supported more than a dozen clients navigate what COVID-19 has presented. We’ve coached and supported leaders delivering the worst possible news to their loyal and dedicated teams and doing so through patchy conferencing technology. We’ve built strategic frameworks for whole organisations for how to communicate, when and what content will work with different audiences at different times. We’ve managed confirmed cases and built detailed incident response plans that have challenged and reset the limits of public health obligations against privacy, legal, HR and other considerations in the interests of staff, customers and the general public. We’ve provided exhaustion relief and out-of-hours support for teams of tired in-house communications professionals who are redefining the value and purpose of internal communications to keep their staff informed, engaged, comforted, and most importantly connected to their workplace and colleagues. 

At the same time, we’ve had the privilege of being part of teams having to innovate in ways that actually bring proper meaning to the word, finally! New ideas, new delivery models, new channels, new team dynamics, a new sense of teamwork, a new respect for the disciplines and skills across businesses, and a renewed sense of purpose – because right now what we all do matters. 

Keeping people safe, keeping people calm, keeping people away from our public health system so our extraordinarily courageous and dedicated healthcare workers can do their jobs, and keeping businesses and industries open, matters. 

Our purpose as an organisation is to help people be their best on their best day and the best they can be on their worst day.™

So right now, be the best you can be. Stay safe, stay connected and stay home. 

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