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COVID-19’s profound impact on communication

COVID-19 continues to wield its broad-sweeping grip on the world, with America now positioned as the global epicentre, thanks to more confirmed cases and fatalities than any other country.

To gain on-the-ground insights about how COVID-19 is impacting communication in one of the hardest-hit areas of the world, VIVA!’s COVIDCommsCast spoke to our New York partner and President of GLOBALHealthPR, Tim Goddard.

“Similar to Australia, for the last two months, COVID-19 has dominated every aspect of the daily U.S. news cycle. Our Presidential Primaries, which once occupied a significant place in our media, have become a complete afterthought, as news outlets dedicate every minute of every hour to COVID-19 coverage.

“Within this period, we’ve seen everything from doomsday reporting about the potential for millions of American lives to be lost, to desperate reports of shortages of personal protective equipment and ventilators. We’ve witnessed reporting of loved ones dying alone as visitors are barred from hospitals, to uplifting stories of the healthcare heroes who are risking their lives to help others,” said Goddard.

“Most recently, coverage has focused on lifting lockdowns and the re-opening of the U.S. economy. This topic is largely political, with the right advocating and even protesting for eased restrictions, while the left pleads for people to remain home as we have not yet peaked nationally.”

Given the continuously evolving situation, there is a pressing need for health communicators to adapt during this globally unprecedented time, with trends moving towards more digital forms of communication.

“Our agency has seen success across multiple channels. There is certainly increased engagement through social media, and an appetite for content via webinars, though as that space becomes saturated, there’s an increasing need for differentiated content.

“We’ve seen a strong uplift in digital projects as well as an increased appetite for sponsored content, which offers brands the ability to get their messages out in a controlled manner during a time when editorial staff are predominantly focused on COVID-19 coverage,” Goddard said.

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way in which we communicate, which is expected to continue to manifest beyond the current crisis.

“I believe COVID-19 will have a profound impact on the way we communicate, and the way we live our lives post-pandemic. From a rapid increase in digital adoption, to a significant decline in brick and mortar retail, to a realisation that many aspects of health delivery can be done remotely .

“I think we’ll see a big acceleration of the telehealth industry, which will bring forward a number of new challenges as it relates to patient and data privacy, but will also open up services to many people who may not otherwise have had access to healthcare,” said Goddard.

“I also think we’ll see a decentralisation of many businesses, as companies realise that fixed overhead costs associated with maintaining offices and the variable costs associated with travel and entertainment may not be as essential to running a successful business, as once perceived. In light of these changes, companies will need to find new ways to engage with stakeholders – both internal and external – in the post COVID-19 world.”

To meet these global challenges, companies will need to adapt their internal communication during, and post the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Goddard, there are two key actions leadership teams can take to engender trust and confidence, and support their staff through this challenging time.

“The first is communicating frequently. We may not always have all the answers, but our staff are looking to us to ensure we’re asking the right questions, and focusing on the right actions. They want to know we’re as concerned about their wellbeing and that of their families and society at large, as we are about the bottom line.

“The second, and perhaps most important piece of advice, is to communicate with empathy. Each individual is experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic in a deeply personal way and we don’t always know how others may be impacted,” Goddard said.

“Whether it’s concern for a family member, loss of a loved one, struggles with home-schooling children while working full-time, or mental health challenges due to on-going stay at home orders, each individual is touched in unforeseen ways. If we approach each other with empathy and foster a culture of collaboration to support our teams through this time, we’ll come out stronger and more connected as an organisation.”

Importantly, Goddard asserts companies will need to modify their immediate external communication strategies while the pandemic continues to unfold.

“In the past several months, we’ve been operating in an environment in which brand and corporate programs should largely be replaced by corporate social responsibility initiatives that transcend commercial objectives. In the U.S., as in many other parts of the world, people are hurting. They are hurting physically, psychologically and economically, as evidenced by more than 26 million new unemployment claims in the U.S. in the past six weeks.

“In my opinion, now is not the time to be promoting a product or a brand. Now is the time for companies to step up, and contribute to the betterment of society. There are many ways to do so. By shifting the focus from profits, to supporting fellow people, companies will build strong advocates today, and in the future,” said Goddard.

From a communications perspective, both in Australia and worldwide, COVID-19 will undoubtedly leave an enduring footprint on the way companies connect, both internally and externally. Gaining and sharing insights from around the world will serve to improve our understanding of how to adapt in times of uncertainty. We should harness this opportunity to foster creativity and innovation beyond the current global pandemic.

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