Mute your mics please! Communications in the time of COVID-19

3 June 2020
SERIES COVID-19 25 items

I find it strange that I heard about the Government’s curfew announcement while presenting my think tank’s communications strategy on a conference call in my living room, almost three months ago. All things considered, the transition from doing comms in an office to doing comms at home has been smooth and above all, enlightening.

As a communications manager, the ‘work from home’ model has been a huge eye opener for me in terms of how we can push and re-define the limits of research communications. From my own makeshift-office to yours, here are two lessons that I can share with other think tanks:

1. When the news cycle changes, change with it

A significant part of a good comms strategy is its ability to adapt to change. Adapting becomes even more important during a global crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic. After adjusting to our new pajama-clad work environments, all our research teams went into ‘response mode’.

As it turns out, we had more ways to connect to the crisis than we thought.  While some of our planned research outputs had to be put on hold, we focused on opportunities to connect to the Covid-19-dominated news cycle using our existing research and analysis.

Plugging into a crisis can happen in two ways. First, you can go against the grain and debunk popular public sentiment. Second, you can supplement existing narratives with new insights and analysis. Think tanks can provide a valuable public service by helping people make sense of the excess of information circulating in the news.

A new approach we used to ‘plug in’ our research to the ongoing crisis was to label it. For example, our ‘Economics of Covid-19’ series illustrates the impact of the pandemic on specific sectors and groups – such as the apparel industry and daily wage earners. Our ‘Mathematics of Covid-19’ series shows the importance of looking beyond reported Covid-19 cases and will soon reveal a different methodology for understanding the true number of cases in the country.

Branding content as a series sends a signal to your audience that you are intentionally responding to the crisis. Taking it a step further and curating such information in a centralised location such as your website is useful, as it helps you build up an archive over time.

2. When you are forced into virtual delivery, embrace it

If you are suddenly forced to function virtually, it does not mean that you will have to compromise on your delivery, particularly events and meetings.

In fact, you may have the chance to reach a bigger audience than before. You are no longer limited by the space that you had in your boardroom or other physical spaces. Moreover, people may be more likely to tune into your digital space because they have less restrictions like rush hour traffic and conflicting schedules. Here are two examples:

Public events: Over the past few years, through our parliamentary monitoring website, our team was successful in bringing together parliamentarians from both the government and opposition onto a single platform to discuss important issues. During the lockdown we took this format and replicated it, virtually.

In early March 2020, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved parliament and called for a general election in April. However, due to the pandemic, the election was postponed. With no parliament, there was no platform through which leaders could discuss and debate on the Government’s Covid-19 response. Through, we filled this gap by convening a virtual parliament leaders’ forum, the first of its kind in Sri Lanka, featuring leaders from the country’s main political parties.

The forum was convened using Zoom and live streamed on our Facebook pages, as well as the Facebook pages of media platforms. At the end of the forum, we had 60,000 views on our live stream, which has grown into more than 200,000 views today. This is indeed a bigger audience that we could ever have hoped for at a physical event of this nature.

Briefings and consultations: On a smaller scale, we were also able to deliver virtual briefings and consultations to small groups. Limited audiences of 12-15 people allow for more focused, one-on-one discussions as well as the personal touch of interacting with each other.

Whenever we hosted events at big venues, I was always standing at the back, watching closely and mentally preparing for any anything that could go wrong – a slide that doesn’t change, a mic that is not switched on, an over-enthusiastic audience member that hogs the Q&A session.

Since we switched to virtual delivery, I continue to do this, except I am invisible! While my colleagues deliver presentations, I lurk on calls and in WhatsApp and Slack groups coordinating with my comms, research and IT team. Always with the assumption that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, it is wise to overprepare for virtual events. This includes having back up moderators, giving admin access to more than one person and making sure your guests have your phone number in case they are suddenly kicked out of the (virtual) room.

The Covid-19 pandemic has given the expression ‘rolling with the punches’ a whole new meaning for think tanks. By creating a work environment that promotes adaptability – both in terms of infrastructure and mind-set – think tanks will be able to seamlessly transition into the ‘new normal’ of the post Covid-19 world, and become more valuable to the public at the same time.