When the pandemic started to hit a year ago, it had a big impact on internal and external communications for all organizations — an impact that’s continuing today. Looking back on the past year, the communication changes can be likened to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
First, from January through early March, there was apprehension and questions. It wasn’t exactly denial, but the situation had everyone asking, “how real is this?”
It was challenging to communicate something you weren’t sure about. That’s why it was important at that stage for leaders to be transparent about not having all the answers, but reassuring employees and clients that they would keep the lines of communication open.
In March and April, the shutdowns started. There was fear and anger. It caused some organizations to immediately pull back from communications while they figured out what was happening.
There was a lot of confusion at this point and, frankly, communication efforts often stalled as uncertainty continued. Many people transitioned to working from home, which had employers scrambling for new ways and new technology to keep the workforce engaged and connected.
The businesses and organizations that were successful at communicating through all these phases were those that realized communication was more important than ever.
Essential workers were so busy at this point that they barely had time to read emails.
In May, there was a realization we were in the pandemic for the long haul. It was the bargaining phase where hyper-communication kicked into full gear.
As businesses figured out what their new normal would look like, there was a lot to communicate internally and externally. In some cases, it focused on what was being done to keep everyone safe and asking customers/employees to follow recommended health guidelines.
It was also when the pandemic became hyper-politicized with conflicting viewpoints that communicators had to wade through as they worked to provide accurate messaging and information.
Once we got into summer, it was the depression stage. We called it the ploddingalong phase because it was a slog. This was among the most challenging of times for communicators.
COVID-fatigue was real, and so was the looming threat of a second surge of COVID; one that would turn out to be even more serious than the initial outbreak. The challenge was getting people to pay attention to the continuing messaging without them tuning out. It called for a lot of creativity on the part of communicators.
As the pandemic ramped up in the fall, the communication stage shifted into acceptance, and then, hope. While the situation was serious, and messages had to continue to focus on health and safety, there was news of a vaccine. That led to a more hopeful approach to communication.
Communicators seized on the messaging that, that if we hung in there and continued to do what was needed in our daily lives and activities, there was light at the end of the tunnel.
It still wasn’t easy communicating as cases surged and politics continued to shape the narrative about the pandemic, but there was a reason to be optimistic.
The businesses and organizations that were successful at communicating through all these phases were those that realized communication was more important than ever. Instead of pulling back or going silent, they reached out to one another, to their trade or industry organizations, and they shared best practices. They weren’t afraid to say they didn’t have all the answers, but they kept their clients and employees in the loop.
None of us want to relive the last year but, as communicators, it’s been good to reflect on how much we learned and adapted as we worked to keep the lines of communications open.
Those lessons learned will shape communication going forward as we finally wind our way out of the pandemic.
Susan Finco is president of Leonard & Finco Public Relations.