Planning is an integral part of any communications strategy. Of course there should always be room for reactive comms and flexibility – you never know when a crisis may occur – but a clear timetable will always be invaluable.
So, what happens when a global pandemic throws your entire comms strategy into disarray?
You adapt. And while there is no strategy on earth that could have equipped charities for the overwhelming impact of Covid-19, some comms teams have evolved to withstand a highly uncertain future.
Here’s how they managed:
Fiona Brydon, head of comms and digital at Cruse Bereavement Care, was only nine months into her role at the charity when the pandemic hit.
“We had developed ambitious and exciting plans for the next few years, but the last six months turned all that around. It was [about] what we had to prioritise to ensure bereaved people received the support they needed,” she explains.
For staff at The Children’s Society, communicating rapidly with key players also moved to the top of its agenda.
“When lockdown hit, our services had to adapt. Fast. So did our comms, with most of our existing plans out the window,” says Joe Jenkins, executive director of engagement and income generation at the charity.
“We focused on communicating with our staff, partners and supporters about what was happening. We knew understanding the risks for vulnerable children and swiftly raising the alarm across our channels and in the media would be vital.”
As daily government briefings provided updates in early weeks of the pandemic, it was essential for the comms teams at Marie Curie, an end-of-life support charity, to focus on what needed to be delivered to have the most impact. This has persisted in the months since, explains Claire Thwaites, head of brand and engagement marketing.
“We are walking a fine line between creating communications activity that takes advantage of what’s relevant and topical, and comms that are important for the charity’s longer-term future,” she says.
“Both are important now, and you risk missing out on emerging opportunities or strategic outcomes if you don’t attempt to do both. With so much going on we had to become ruthless at prioritising.”
The importance of internal comms
Managing communications for an external audience during times of crisis is vital, but how these changes are communicated internally also matters.
When coronavirus hit, the RNLI had three priorities: to keep their people safe, keep the public safe and protect the future of the charity. This meant focusing resources on internal communications to keep staff and volunteers informed and safe in a constantly changing situation.
“We developed new ways of communicat-ing with our people, created resources to support staff and volunteers and regularly celebrated everyone’s contribution – especially those on furlough or temporary leave,” says Isla Reynolds, senior media engagement manager at the RNLI.
The Children’s Society’s leadership team also worked to communicate frequently and transparently with staff. “We prioritised continual internal comms through daily emails from rotating members of the executive team, to all-team ‘townhall’ meetings and regular check-ins at all levels,” says Jenkins.
Conducting a series of staff surveys also helped the charity respond to the changing needs of its team and ensure comms were relevant, timely and making a difference.
“Above all else, we focused on being ‘human’ and prioritised authentic, personal, emotive communications over the typical corporate messaging,” Jenkins says.
With no clear end to the pandemic in sight, many comms teams are now shifting their focus to the longer-term strategy.
“Taking time to pause, re-evaluate and recharge as we head into yet more uncharted waters is key,” says Cruse Bereavement Care’s Brydon.
“As we move out of crisis mode, how we work has changed, and that needs acknowledging. I always look to the lessons and learnings – and Covid-19 has certainly given us plenty of these.”
One core lesson has been to avoid planning too far ahead operationally, she says.
“Long-term tactical planning was always a challenge for us as a small team, but the need to be responsive and adaptable to the ever-changing landscape has never been more important.”
Instead the charity has empowered smart operational prioritisation that is balanced against driving ambitious strategic plans, Brydon says, which keeps the organisation’s focus realistic, but still visionary and inspiring.
“Most importantly, we need to ensure the wellbeing of our teams, staff, and volunteers, as well as our beneficiaries, continues to be a priority. Communications is pivotal to that,” she says.
After a busy summer, the RNLI is now focusing on its recovery plan – concentrating on fundraising in the run-up to Christmas and making sure staff and volunteers are being kept informed.
“We are still very aware that things could change quickly, so alongside this work we are planning against various scenarios so we can continue to deliver the best lifesaving and fundraising effect possible,” says Reynolds.
Before Covid-19, The Children’s Society was looking at how to engage new supporters in its work, which remains an ongoing challenge for Jenkins.
“Already well into the process of a brand refresh, we decided to keep this on track, along with both the redevelopment of our website and major campaign moments planned for the summer and Christmas,” he says.
The most important thing, he adds, is to not be afraid to stand your ground about important long-term work, while leaving yourself space to be responsive to what’s happening in the external environment.
“Keep focused on the impact on your beneficiaries and relevance to your supporters,” he says.