Communication in COVID-19 Times

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THE PUBLIC SPHERE with Chido Nwakanma

The coronavirus pandemic is shaking various tables and forcing a re-assessment of hitherto settled matters. Or those that the wisdom and paradigm of the day considered settled. During the past week, communication professionals gathered under the umbrella of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) to review the role of the discipline in these coronavirus times. If communication is so pervasive, should it also take the rap when stakeholders fail to act in desired directions?

The IABC webinar tackled “Strategic Communication in the trajectory of a pandemic”. Zoom was the platform, with over 50 participants out of the 150 that registered. The West Africa Interest Group of IABC organised the event.

Communication has played a frontline role in the management of Covid19. It has lived up to the belief of the industry that communication is central and contributory to the effective management of human organisations, be they corporates, institutions or even the family.

Staying connected with all stakeholders and showing care and affinity are critical communication practices for organisational success during and after Covid19, the experts asserted.

They said that given the physical distancing that has left workers operating in safe places away from offices and factories, organisations must stay connected to their employees, primarily, as well as other stakeholders.
The experts are Anne Ezeh, the Communications Director for GE’s Gas Power Business for Sub- Saharan Africa, Dr Omoniyi Ibietan, a certified regulation specialist and professional multi-stakeholder communication and relationship manager with the Nigerian Communications Commission and Ukwori Ejibe, the Strategic Communications, Change Management & Partnerships Lead for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI).

They served as panellists.
Ezeh asked communication managers to pay special attention to internal communication. “Amplify the internal voice”, she counselled, by allowing staff members to express themselves broadly, so they are comfortable. Ideas may also come from there.

One fallout of communication during Covid19, according to the experts, is the increasing blending of business and family values. People working from home increasingly involve their families. Children look in as the Zoom chats are going on. Family members understand better the work that their parents do, despite the occasional inconvenience.

Ukwori Ejibe lends her expertise to the National Centre for Disease Control. She said the NCDC is increasing its communication outreach beyond traditional and social media to using influencers across culture, religion and other societal touchpoints. She advocated the increased deployment of word of mouth by both influencers and the average citizen.

Ibietan disclosed that the Nigerian Communications Commission supports the efforts of the telecommunication companies that offered airtime, SMS and even data to subscribers to enable connection with their families and friends. He said the NCC would soon run a significant campaign to educate stakeholders on the coronavirus further and thrash any negative relationship between telecommunications and the pandemic.

The experts called on corporate bodies as well as individuals not to stand aloof but to show greater interest and involvement in tackling the pandemic. They said citizens should heed all the protocols on safety bearing in mind that Covid19 may be here for much longer than envisaged.

The upside is that many people believe more in messaging from their organisations. It elevated the importance of internal communication and employee engagement. The Nigerian experience replicates in other locations.

Key takeaways included
• Public sector: Breakdown in trust in institutions is a global hindrance to effective crisis communications. It takes a village to manage the response effectively.

• Private sector: It is important not to distance the employer voice from external reality. Employee communication needs to be human, empathise and help staff navigate the situation.

• To remain relevant throughout the pandemic, organisations must need to pivot and innovate their brand voice to external themes (i.e. matters of interest and concern in the broader society). They have to be engaged, corporate citizens.

• Brands that do not put in place strategies to aid their customers to survive would likely lose them post-pandemic.

• The days of “spray and pray” or scattershot messaging and communication are over. Messaging has to be tailored and targeted to specific audience profiles and organisational objectives.

The Institute for Public Relations at the University of Florida, Miami, USA is one of the foremost in researching issues in the discipline. Its latest ebook, Leadership Perspectives: Leading and Looking Ahead Through Covid19 shares the experiences of 30 comms professionals.

It reports, among others, Jennifer Mauer, Head of Global Corporate Communications at Merck, said the pandemic elevated the value of communication. “We know that in times of great uncertainty, people seek transparency, guidance, and help to make sense of what has happened,” said Mauer. “The role of communication has become even more important with the majority of employees telling us that they trust communications from their organisation more than other sources.”

Covid19 has brought to the fore the role of the comms professional as the valuable sensor of public intelligence for organisations.

An elephant stood in the room and has shown up wherever professionals discuss the matter of communicating in this pandemic. That elephant manifests as the question of effectiveness against environmental challenges such as cynicism and distrust of authority figures. Suspicion is now a global phenomenon, but it is worse in countries such as Nigeria. Nigerians doubt their government officials.

The evidence is that many Nigerians fail to heed all the communication on the protocol for the management of Covid19. They do not wear masks, wash their hands frequently with soap and water, nor observe social distancing. Many reasons exist.

The conversation happened against the backdrop of fake news, deliberate falsehoods aimed at undermining belief in the existence of the pandemic, and deployment of tropes and guerrilla theatre to spin even more damaging stories. One of such is a TikTok video trending on WhatsApp of a pretty and very buxom character. She engages a conversation where she shares with someone at the other end of the line, her disbelief in the existence of Covid19.

“Exactly!” she starts with an assertion. “I was asking them. Do you know somebody who has corona? They said no. Do you know somebody who knows somebody who has corona? They said no. Do you know somebody who has a friend who has a cousin who has corona? They said no.”. She then executes a vigorous waist wriggle while laughing uproariously and turning the question “Do you know somebody” into a refrain. It was a dangerous message wrapped in eye candy and the Nigerian proclivity to reduce everything to humour. It moved fast across WhatsApp, which, according to Hootsuite Research, is the number one platform in Nigeria. It is a sample of the messaging that fuelled disbelief and cynicism about the pandemic.

Back to our webinar. The experts on the IABC platform emphasised the imperative of broadening the channels for messaging in these times. Word of mouth is one. It is also time to put the communication theories about effects and influencers such as two-step and multi-step flow to test.

What is your experience of communication in these Covid19 times? What has worked or failed for you? The conversation continues.