Communicating in a contagion
Notes from a Spare Room
This isn’t Crisis Management; this is Contagion Comms. The COVID-19 disaster has challenged the PR industry like nothing before.
While dealing with our own upheavals – lockdown, fear of illness, the spectre of redundancy – PR consultants have been advising clients as they deal with events moving at a pace few are equipped to handle.
Decisions that would normally take months are being made in minutes; cast-iron certainties melt in an instant; the useful data point we clung to this morning is discredited bunkum by lunchtime. It’s been mentally exhausting, ethically challenging, and – I have to confess – rather exhilarating. When this is over, we’ll all have our war stories.
Me? I’ve spent the last fortnight advising retail clients as they respond to fast-changing, often baffling Government advice. What’s essential, what is not?. How safe is safe? Is it better to protect livelihoods or lives?
These are impossible dilemmas. Business leaders are making lightning-quick judgements as they balance their duty to society with their obligations to staff, customers and shareholders.
Mercifully, PR advisors do not make these decisions, but the advice we give has some bearing.
History will judge us
In peacetime, business leaders only start to think about their legacy towards the end of their careers. Believe me, they’re all thinking about it now.
It creates a completely different dynamic in the relationship between advisor and client. We’re still doing what we always do in a crisis – making high-value, super-tactical judgements about presentation – but now we do it through the lens of history, acutely aware of who’s keeping a tally of coronavirus heroes and villains.
How will we be judged? Did we collaborate in a tragically wrong call? Did our overly cautious counsel contribute to the collapse of a perfectly viable business? What filters and lenses did we use?
Communication is connection
There are thousands of jobbing PRs sitting in their spare rooms, leaning over their laptops, zooming from one video conference to the next, grappling with these questions as they juggle work, dog walks, food shopping and homeschooling.
We may not be essential workers, but communication is the connective tissue in this crisis. It’s pretty much all we’ve got. The daily briefings from No 10, endless rolling news, the bottomless pit of comment, rumour and personal testimony on social media.
What did we contribute to this melee? Were we constructive, or were we cynical? Did we help people understand their predicament better, or did we merely add to the confusion? Few of us can answer these questions with certainty right now but we’re working night and day to get it right, and our clients have never been more appreciative.
Ours is a Cinderella industry, frequently lampooned and marginalised. When this is all over, the true value of thoughtful communication counsel will, I hope, never be in doubt again.
Steve Marinker is a Partner at Powerscourt. If you would like to sign up for Powerscourt’s daily Coronavirus briefing, which summarises how the business community is dealing with the crisis, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.