The evolving role of the public communicator after COVID-19

Our agency was one of the province’s first communication firms focused on serving the public sector. In many cases, the communications role fell onto an existing employee’s already full plate because they were “good with grammar” or knew how to lay out a newsletter in WordPerfect (#throwback). Communications efforts were often limited to simple messages or updates on printed newsletters or direct mailers, ads on the radio or the local paper, and news releases with little follow-up.

Eventually, professional communication was seen as a critical tool to help meet bigger organizational goals: information built awareness and trust between organizations and audiences, while campaigns convinced residents to call before they dig, or changed health behaviors like tobacco use and heart-disease prevention. Proactive media relations helped build bridges between organizations and journalists to their mutual benefit.

Communications leaders were slowly winning the battle for a seat at the strategic table, and over the past 20 years, their teams struggled to meet the demands of the rapid growth in public engagement, channels, and tools – the Internet, social media, a shift to video and visual communications over written methods, citizen journalists armed with blogs, podcasts and armies of voices, more diverse communities – all required a wider range of knowledge and skills that demanded more specialists and more investment.

The organizations that rose to those capacity challenges found themselves in the best shape to tackle a global pandemic. Swift adoption of 24/7 delivery models and increased social media engagement, virtual town-hall style conversations, issues management processes to temper polarizing situations – were critical to navigate everyone’s new reality. Organizations that weren’t prepared scrambled, called in reinforcements, and faced a harsh critic: a worried public.

Further to the obvious takeaway that preparedness wins the day and communications teams must therefore be steadfastly supported with budgets and leadership, four compelling takeaways strike me as the way forward for public communicators:

Communications and brand intersect now more than ever

Branding, on one level, is simply the organization’s visual identity – a consistent look and feel makes it easier for audiences to recognize and embrace your messaging, and the organizations that had that steady look in place more easily hit their targets in the visually noisy early days of the pandemic.

But effective branding reaches well beyond a recognizable layout. Trust became a critical success factor for public and private organizations as they introduced messaging meant to assure and guide the public. Organizations that had consistently invested in defining and promoting an authentic brand experience for their audiences were in the best position to meet those goals. The pandemic was a clear reminder that organizations must always focus on brand identity to shore up goodwill and ease the way to getting critical messaging out.

Leaders must be communicators

Certain politicians and community leaders faced considerable heat when they were absent for long periods of time instead of steadfastly reinforcing the importance of their messaging. Others stepped forward with sincere videos, letters and town halls that played a critical role in communications. In Guelph-Wellington-Dufferin, Dr. Nicola Mercer comes easily to mind as a genuine, steady voice. Speaking to the community from behind ring lights with cameras rolling was not why she signed on to her job – I imagine she would be the first to say the spotlight is her least favourite place to be – but she stepped into the role with grace, and her leadership led to some of the province’s best participation in public health recommendations.

Collaboration and networks are essential

I’ve long advocated for communicators to realize that their power is in their numbers: dozens of community organizations have professional communicators with similar goals, and each has worked hard to build channels and relationships with their audiences. The sum of their whole is greater than each part, and with some cooperation and coordination, a consistent, strong message can move quickly through a community in an effective, cost-efficient manner. We were involved in a few examples of this, and many hands made for lighter work and especially effective results.

Good communication must start from within

Internal communications quickly had to be a high priority amidst all the other urgent communication needs. Employees were in near (and literally, virtual) chaos. Organizations with established staff communication tools and processes were in the best shape to gauge employee wellness, clarify expectations, define roles, and calm nerves. Leaders providing clear information about how they were pivoting, and how they were engaging stakeholders, was an essential action.

In any business or organization, its employees are important ambassadors; in public organizations that people are looking to for guidance and assurance, their role becomes all the more critical. Knowledge, as they say, is power.

The “lessons learned” blogs, podcasts and pundit-fueled debates will be plentiful in the months to come, I know. These observations are the tip of the iceberg, and if we can take just a few of these lessons into the “new normal”, the next crisis will be just a tiny bit easier to navigate.

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