From crisis to BAU: has the Covid-19 pandemic transformed communications for the better?

About the author

Alice Attwood is Senior Public Relations Manager at Govia Thameslink Railway. She prepared this article as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.

Photo from Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR)
Photo from Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR)
Alice Attwood
Alice Attwood

We’re living through extremely challenging times, and communications – like many other sectors – has had to adapt at pace. The importance of reliable information throughout the Covid-19 pan demic has been fundamental, with the landscape pushing for faster, more creative updates as the crisis took hold.

Arguably, the pandemic could be described as a lengthy state of issues identification. The rapidly-evolving situation has created – at least in the short-term – a fundamental shift to the way that PR professionals operate, both logistically by shifting to working from home, and strategically when approaching planning in a world with moving goalposts.

A vital aspect of issues management is anticipating them, as Heath outlines; however, I think it’s safe to say that few organisations have a crisis comms plan prepared for a global pandemic. At Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), we have communications protocols in place so we’re ‘ready’ for the awful event of a train crash or accident but have been forced to expand our toolkit amid this global challenge.

Though risk management is a core responsibility for my team in BAU, identifying this particular incoming public health issue was certainly not on the PR radar for us as a train operator; we had to rapidly shift to pure crisis management mode.

Whilst unanticipated, to manage this new ‘issue,’ PRs have had to quickly create communication narratives for their organisations that are simple and effective. As in Jacques’ checklist of readiness, the ease of implementation – in our case hugely focused on the cleanliness of services – was key, though a challenge with the landscape and need for speed.

I think many comms professionals will recognise the metaphorical visual of ripping up of creative campaign plans, replaced by practical and often safety-focused alternatives that Covid-19 has forced. But so too will they recognise the focus shift of businesses continuing to communicate throughout the crisis. I can certainly say this period has been the busiest in my professional career, facing constantly shifting business priorities and challenges, alongside evolving government guidance; it has been a year like no other.

More than a ‘regular’ crisis

While many PRs have experienced crisis incidents, when we discuss these, they are usually isolated, reputation-focused accidents, challenges or mistakes that require comms to rally for reputation rescue. Covid-19 has been different and presented, yes, you guessed it, an ‘unprecedented’ elongated period of crisis during which many have faced extensive challenges personally, as well as professionally. All sounds like an attractive environment to work in, right?

However, many would suggest that we are lucky to have continued to work, unlike many across the UK who’ve been furloughed or faced redundancy during this period, including in the PR industry. Of course, they’re right – and we will surely see working patterns evolve across sectors in the future – but perhaps jobs aren’t everything, and when faced with a global pandemic, priorities inevitably change. Though I recognise that’s easy to say as someone who’s worked throughout this period. Much has been written about the incoming mental health crisis that Covid-19 will cause – PR professionals are not immune to this due to the simple fact that many of us may have remained employed.

The role of communications

Working through this period at GTR, our communications approach has played a key part in reputation management; aligning with stakeholders to identify businesses and NHS Trusts on the route to make operational changes, rebranding trains to show support for the NHS and fellow key workers and creating a consistent stream of authentic content on behind-the-scenes operations has helped to cultivate better stakeholder relationships. Presenting key messages through our people has been a core tactic; our most recent passenger survey showed overall satisfaction as the highest since surveys began, with information and station cleanliness key drivers of satisfaction.

Whilst we’ve been supported and represented by a Communications Director in our executive team at GTR, the huge reliance on communications throughout the crisis has sparked a resurgence of the debate over the validity of PR representation at board level. A recent piece by PR Academy student Vicky Shepard discussed the huge value placed on communications during the pandemic, offering modern support for Grunig’s 40-year-old case for PR operating as a key management function and playing a core role in strategic decision-making.

If this crisis has shown businesses nothing else, the value of empathetic communications toward your colleagues, customers and potential customers in such times cannot be underestimated.

Subsequently, the continual investment in stakeholder management has supported logistical planning, with MPs and businesses alike – who also have their own stakeholders – taking a strong interest in services and safety and sharing updates with their audiences. As Cooper, Martin and Burke explain, a good corporate reputation is enhanced by the tangible things that a company does, demonstrating that sharing behind-the-scenes aspects with real colleagues generates strong support.

Reviewing the wider communications landscape, in RepTrak’s 2020 global brand measure, corporate reputation, authenticity and brand purpose were reported as fundamental. Following the pandemic businesses will need to focus here, as well as on corporate responsibility and corporate ethics or ‘responsible leadership’ with stakeholders, as Freeman notes, to set apart those who are going beyond legal obligations. Langham cites the drive to be seen as purposeful as the ‘number one trend’ in global reputation management.

Communication has been vital throughout the crisis; the appetite for reliable news is crucial at times of disaster. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer released in January highlighted an “epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world,” and called out numerous vital focus areas for businesses and their stakeholders, including, “Provide trustworthy content that is truthful, unbiased and reliable.”

Real people, real stories

This has been key at GTR, our ‘Behind-the-Scenes’ campaign has told real and authentic colleague stories, interwoven with key safety or travel messaging. Curating a strategic set of content presented from a real-person perspective has been hugely impactful when sharing updates or advice across our social channels as well as through the media, with some stories going viral due to their unexpected nature, including challenging stereotypes around train drivers and apprenticeships.

Interestingly, demand for news from traditional sources has increased during the crisis; regulator Ofcom’s recent News Consumption Report showed fewer people are getting their news from social media and those who are using social for news rated these platforms lower on trust, impartiality and accuracy; this helps to reinforce the need for reliable, accurate information.

In fact, due to a spate of mis-information being shared about the virus, Ofcom identified that some of the public were unsure about which sources to trust and so created resources to help people navigate the vast array of news on the subject, with suggestions on sources and tips on how to ‘tell fact from fiction.’

This shift to a more-savvy public who want to see businesses taking on projects creating tangible and human benefits rather than simply words will outlast the pandemic; the impact of the ‘say-do’ gap – often linked to corporate social responsibility – on firms’ credibility is here to stay.

With TV remaining the most-consumed platform for news, Reuters’ Digital News Report describes a ‘surge’ in demand following a number of years of decline. Demand for traditional and reliable news increases at times of crisis, with the impact of the Covid-19 unprecedented in modern history. Boris Johnson’s address to the nation in March telling the country to stay at home is one of the most-watched broadcasts in UK television history, with 27 million people watching live – it later caused the BBC’s iPlayer to crash.

Instant impact

Following the announcement, like the rest of the railway, we saw an exponential drop in passenger numbers – for an operator previously carrying a million people per day across 800 miles of network and with nearly 8,000 colleagues, the operational challenges soon followed. Alongside 95% fewer passengers we also saw colleagues shielding, off sick with suspected Covid and faced the challenge of transferring the office community to home working. No mean feat for an industry that is seen as behind the times when it comes to technology and innovation.

“The pandemic is dividing us,” wrote the Telegraph’s Paul Nuki, on the chasm between the public’s reactions and attitudes to the crisis. While examining the interpersonal challenges, and underlying political elements to these mindsets, this can also be seen in communications. The majority of the communications sector was able to transition with relative ease to working from home but what impact has that had on the people we work with who cannot do the same?

In rail, for example, we’ve continued to run train services throughout the lockdowns for key workers; these trains and stations and control centres are all staffed by our own key workers. The value of effective listening and dialogue has been welcomed; our customer surveys now call for emotive responses relating to confidence and concerns, rather than being solely based on service.

With these powerful insights now shared with the communications teams we better-understand public anxieties around travelling; as Cutlip et al note, effective PR starts with listening. By asking our customers to share their concerns about using the rail network we have shaped communications to share the practical updates we’ve made to reassure that we are listening, acknowledge specific concerns and show how we’re working behind-the-scenes to respond and improve. Ultimately, this shows that we understand them, reflecting the processes mapped by Macnamara, which are all interlinked with engagement and become most valuable when becoming part of an organisations’ culture.

While Tench and Moreno suggest that listening is a key knowledge area during crisis, the pandemic has shown that comms needs to go further than simply monitoring trends or risks and shift to focusing on problem-solving and action.

Arguably, we are seeing changes in outputs too; a BBC news reporter recently told me, “We would never have accepted Zoom quality [for TV news] – and now you see it in every story… We’re doing things that would have been considered unbroadcastable (sic) a year ago!”

And while I may not agree that their outputs have slipped, I found this interesting; perhaps the way we do things in comms will change forever – the advent of video calls undoubtedly makes it ‘easier’ to secure a media opportunity. We’ve continued to adapt and certainly the bar for acceptable imagery has fluctuated during the pandemic – the people on the ground have always been our greatest assets but our reliance on them has increased exponentially. What’s key as we stride toward the ‘new normal’ is ensuring we do not take this support for granted and continue to champion them in communications work.

These practical changes have also impacted the transactional relationship with journalists; PR is increasingly being viewed as an information subsidy, as noted by Currah, but this reliance for assets has only been exacerbated by the pandemic with less access to real-life people. With journalists also acting as content providers, perhaps there are days of even closer relationships ahead?

But what’s next – we cannot continue to operate in crisis at pace forever and are now hopeful that we can turn our focus to recovery.

News from the PR world in February from Publicis Groupe could be seen as a sign of industry encouragement; Publicis is handing back salary sacrifices taken during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic to 6,000 of its higher-earning employees, as well boosting the annual bonus pool after the company performed better than expected in 2020.

Perhaps this is an early indication that there’s light at the end of the crisis communications tunnel, with the huge amount achieved during this awful year for humanity starting to be recognised. Whist we’ve faced a year of loss, uncertainty and lockdowns, I hope the pandemic will see communications professionals shift to become a more flexible, human-championing profession, fostering increasingly genuine relationships with stakeholders after tirelessly proving the value of sharing the real faces and voices of their organisations throughout the pandemic.