Communicating Covid-19: From crisis comms to a “new normal”

By Russell Reader, Associate Director of Strategic Communications & Brand, Keele University
2 July 2020

When I wrote a short piece for our intranet in January about travel advice for any colleagues who had recently visited Wuhan, never in a million years did I imagine that just a few months later the UK would have one of the highest death tolls in a global pandemic and that our university campuses would be out of bounds for most of our staff and students. Rereading those early updates now, lines such as “PHE has confirmed that the risk to the UK population is very low” send a shiver down the spine, but I think this is a prime example in comms terms of how the crisis escalated so rapidly from being something on the periphery to something that quickly continues to dominate us all, each and every day, for weeks and months on end.

Communicating the original crisis

As communicators we’re trained to adapt and get on with the job in hand, but as we sit in our home offices creating content for returning students and staff about the on-campus experience in September, I think it’s important to reflect a little on just how much our comms have had to change since those early “travel updates” in January and how bizarre the situation quickly became.

The early rise in hate crime towards people of Chinese or Southeast Asian origin saw local news stories and anecdotal reports about racism being directed at students across the country; this wasn’t helped by the wall-to-wall coverage about the Chinese student at the University of York who tested positive for Covid-19 in early February. I remember discussing this angrily with comms colleagues across the sector at the time as we saw it spark panic on public transport and some campuses, and many of us found ourselves in the ridiculous position of essentially writing statements to remind people to be nice to each other and to not succumb to xenophobic fear. Given that researchers now say that less than 0.1% of imported cases came directly to the UK from China, and that the UK’s Covid-19 pandemic had no fewer than 1,356 origins, some of this early news coverage feels even more irresponsible.

Such was the scale and complexity of the crisis comms efforts for each and every university back in February that what started as simple messages about handwashing soon spiralled into comms around student welfare, cancelled events, and eventually a full campus shutdown. All of this required multifaceted comms with dozens of targeted audiences, and all at the same time. On a personal note, a spot of paternity leave smack bang in the middle of all this was far from ideal timing wise but thankfully I’m well supported by Keele’s talented team!

Embedding Covid-19 comms as business-as-usual

Covid-19 comms are no longer crisis comms - they are, for now at least, firmly embedded in our day-to-day duties, and now feel strangely normal.

At Keele we have adopted a five-stage approach similar to the UK government alert system, which is allowing us to clearly articulate our current position and what this means in lay terms. We’re supporting this with clear and regular messaging on our website, intranet, and social media channels, and we’re increasingly making use of video to deliver frequent updates from our Vice-Chancellor.

Our senior team is engaging at a local level with so many people across the organisation, from academic and professional departments across the organisation to students and trade unions representatives. This level of engagement is of course key to ensuring that our communications are holistic and that everybody is on the same page.

As always, our job as comms leads is to translate often complex information into clear and concise copy that answers the questions that staff and students really want answering - it’s important to remember that, whilst all of our plans should be publicly available and transparent, the majority of people don’t want to wade through lots of strategic planning documents and instead just want to know what it means for them. With that in mind we’re pulling out the key facts of our updates and including those in our headline messages and video updates so that the impact on specific individuals is really easy to understand, alongside our detailed plans for anybody who wants or needs to see them. I think that is the challenge now that Covid-19 has become part of the fabric of daily life - in the early stages of the pandemic we needed to tell everybody everything (whatever everything was!), but as it becomes embedded in our operations we need to tailor messages for different audiences and try to answer specific questions rather than bombard them with too much information.

Looking towards a post-Covid-19 future

Just last month a story that we published on our website about a Covid-19 vaccine that is set to be manufactured here at Keele became one of our most-read articles of all time, such is the public interest in Covid-19 and how organisations are responding to the challenge. We’ve told dozens of stories from across our community about efforts to tackle Covid-19, and our academics have appeared regularly on global TV news to share sensible and accurate expertise with the public, as well as writing about the pandemic from multiple angles via The Conversation.

It may be wishful thinking and months or even years away, but I’m already mulling over how we might mark the end of the Covid-19 crisis and how we can communicate our full thanks to those staff who have kept essential services running. Those who have worked wonders from home, our nursing graduates who stepped up to the NHS frontline, and our students who have coped so well with the unprecedented disruption. However we choose to celebrate, it will be really important to communicate our achievements in the face of such adversity, and that’s something to look forward to once everything is (hopefully) back to normal in the not-too-distant future.