A Critical Moment: Stakeholders Will Remember Brands’ Pandemic Communications and Actions

[Editor’s Note: It’s a useful coincidence that in this moment PRSA’s chairperson, T. Garland Stansell, also is a veteran health care communicator. Having interviewed him earlier in the year, when he became PRSA’s chair, we sought his counsel again in mid-February, when the coronavirus was becoming more than an international story here in the US.

Now, some 10 weeks into the pandemic, we thought it was time to check in again with Stansell, CCO of Children’s of Alabama, the pediatric health system in Birmingham. He emphasized the importance for the future of how brands are communicating and acting now. His edited responses to our questions follow.]

T. Garland Stansell
CCO, Childrens of Birmingham
PRSA Chairman

PRNEWS: What are the 2 most important things brand communicators should be doing now regarding internal communications? With the fragmented, state-by-state response to coronavirus, must internal communicators tailor messages to where the audience resides?

T. Garland Stansell: First and foremost, communicators need to convey to employees that their safety and well-being are the company or organization’s top priorities.

Messaging should be consistent, honest and updated frequently, not only to reflect current situations but plans for the future. This type of straightforward communication will make internal audiences feel more secure and that they are part of a team. This will have a positive impact on the work they do on behalf of the brand, internally and externally.

Brand communicators also need to make sure that all stakeholders understand, and feel comfortable with, what the brand stands for and what it is doing to be most useful and empathic through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic.

People, as employees and as consumers, can have very long memories about what brands did and didn’t do during a time of crisis. Taking social responsibility seriously is not only the right thing to do, but essential for the viability of future business concerns.

In terms of the fragmented environment, messages need to encompass both viewpoints: what is happening with the brand on a national or regional basis–how it has been perceived both positively and negatively–and how those perceptions and realities are affecting people’s lives and choices in specific local environments.

Coronavirus and The Future

PRNEWS: In your letter last month to PRSA members, you wrote, “When the crisis finally starts to dissipate—and it will—many of the disruptions will be incorporated in some shape or form into the fabric of our lives.” Can you provide two examples of what this will look like and how communicators can prepare for it?

Stansell: One of these will involve the continuation of how and where we work, which as we all know is changing dramatically. Working remotely will become much more of a viable option, giving employees more flexibility in terms of work/life management.

Concurrent with that is the need for communicators to continue what they are doing now, ensuring that remote work doesn’t become just that – remote, leaving people feeling too isolated from those they work with and for.

Another example involves brands continuing to think more deeply about how they’re viewed and talked about. Some things will change and become more relaxed, such as using humor to convey messages, but brand communicators and their teams will need to continue to act as vigilant strategists and sounding boards in a post-pandemic world.

Actions taken or not taken by a brand during this time will have an effect on consumer and client expectations once things become more normalized.

Over-communicate Until When?

PRNEWS: In late April, we conducted a survey of PR pros. One of the questions we asked concerned over-communication. Our question was whether or not it’s time, now 8 or so weeks into the pandemic in the US, to tap the brakes on over-communication. More than 60 percent of those surveyed said no, it was not time yet.

In our March edition, you urged our readers to communicate “early and often.” Now the advice of the moment continues to be over-communicate, at least in terms of internal communications.

We’ll ask the same question that we asked in the survey: At this point, is it time for internal communicators to throttle back a bit since so much has already been said and you don’t want to smother people’s inboxes?

Stansell: The term over-communicate is relative, and should be looked at in terms of individual situations and environments. Each organization has priorities and communications style, and can make the best judgment about what is too much or too little. Having said that, yes, early and often is absolutely about ensuring that employees, colleagues and clients feel safe, informed, engaged.

But no, it is definitely not time to throttle back on internal communication. Instead, extending your metaphor, we should keep moving full steam ahead on communications efforts.

Situations on the national and local fronts are changing virtually every day. And as you and I have talked about previously, there is a constant need to counter the misinformation and disinformation from a variety of sources, which can become overwhelming.

In addition, messaging in the early stages of the pandemic focused on education, processes and calming initial fears.

Now, weeks later, messaging may be needed to continue to reassure, provide self-care information and to continue to inform various constituencies of changes in policies, procedures and expectations that are specific to the industry and possibly to a specific segment of the industry or organization.

Misinformation During a Health Crisis

PRNEWS: Let’s follow-up on misinformation. A lot of people are saying that the only thing spreading faster than the coronavirus is misinformation about it. We see Facebook, for example, being proactive about some coronavirus misinformation, at least more than it was previously.

Still, a lot of people are upset with Facebook and other platforms for failing to remove some posts about miracle cures for coronavirus. As a healthcare communicator, are you surprised at the amount of misinformation circulating globally around coronavirus? What can communicators do to combat this scourge?

Stansell: I am not surprised, but disappointed. People are extremely concerned and distracted, and often do not take the time to carefully review sources and verify credentials.

Unfortunately, there is a wide range of unreliable and possibly dangerous online resources to choose from during this crisis It is best always to review sources and to ensure their reliability. As I said previously (see PRNEWS, March 2020), in a healthcare situation the most reliable sources will be grounded in science, evidence-based research and medical expertise.

Communicators everywhere, as I said in my open letter to the profession, need to reaffirm our mission to serve as fierce guardians of and advocates for truthful and transparent communications. People are looking for direction and leadership, and it is our job to be truthful, transparent, and trustworthy.

PRNEWS: You told us back in mid-February, when the pandemic was barely on the radar screen in the US, that whatever communicators do in a healthcare crisis, they should be consistent, speaking with one voice. With a few large exceptions, it seems most are doing this. Do you agree?

Stansell: For the most part, yes. The ability to speak with one voice actually depends on multiple components, including ensuring that, before they become public, messages are accurate, authentic, and the people delivering them are in sync with each other.

The best health resources are those grounded in science, evidence-based research and medical expertise. People looking for facts should seek out those.

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