There is no handbook explaining how to balance marketing, media relations, internal communications and keeping other stakeholders informed during a pandemic. But fortunately – thanks to tools we already have in our arsenal as communications professionals – we can create a solid process to work from now before the next long-duration crisis.
The pandemic may not necessarily have taught us new tricks, but as echoed in advice and anecdotes shared at a recent Public Relations Society of America event in Central New York, it reinforced the importance of establishing good habits and best practices when things are going well.
Moderated by our own Crystal DeStefano, APR, President and Director of Communications at Strategic Communications, LLC, the panel featured Cheryl Abrams (Director of Communications & Digital Media at Crouse Health), Nikita Jankowski (Director of Marketing at Destiny USA), and Melissa Richards (VP for Communications and Marketing at Hamilton College).
We can start framing out our proactive communication efforts by holding a mirror to our organization’s culture.
Draw from Your Company Culture to Improve Internal Communications
Successful communicators know how to keep all stakeholders up-to-date, and they start by building relationships and trust with their teams. Knowing how to write for – and more importantly, communicate with – the internal audience influences the development and effectiveness of subsequent messages. When done correctly, it establishes buy-in and yields ambassadors to amplify the organization’s messages to other audiences.
“We approached everything in pretty much the same way as if we weren’t in pandemic mode,” said Cheryl Abrams, Director of Communications & Digital Media at Crouse Health. “You rely on the basics. You rely on the culture that you’ve built over a number of years, and that’s really how it was for us. We’ve got a strong culture, and we have great leadership.”
Abrams and her team sent daily emails to all employees, keeping everyone updated, and quarterly meetings and informal meetings didn’t miss a beat.
“When you’ve got a great culture, it emanates from the people [employees],” said Abrams, who was particularly impressed with the positive, organic messages from staff and providers – sometimes showing up in inspirational chalk messages, drawings or painted rocks. “We talk a lot about the public relations role, but you can’t discount the role that ambassadors of your organization play when they say great things internally, externally, and through social media.”
Establishing regular communication with employees early on – even before the pandemic – proved valuable for Nikita Jankowski and Melissa Richards as well.
Destiny USA, a retail and entertainment destination in Syracuse, employs more than 5,000 people. Jankowski’s marketing team increased the frequency of its already well-established communications and made even more platforms available to spread the word. Jankowski noticed that employees who may have previously been difficult to reach were eager to be more engaged.
“Establishing that regular rhythm has made people feel a little calmer,” said Melissa Richards, Vice President for Communications and Marketing at Hamilton College. Richards authors weekly electronic messages – which college faculty, students and their family members look forward to reading. “People are reading their emails these days more so than they were in the past.”
Write for Longevity and Incorporate Empathy
Incorporating empathy into our writing and communications is also important. By doing this, we build rapport to be reliable information sources during the good times, and in challenging situations.
Sometimes the passage of time can feel daunting, even for the most seasoned public relations professionals. Knowing that moving too quickly can risk leaving people behind, Richards coaches her team and campus leaders using a bridge analogy.
“As communicators, we can’t run across the bridge and shout across to the other side for people to follow,” she said. “We have to usher them over the bridge, and we do that through our communication. You have to take everyone with you and move them through the crisis.”
Richards says we can set the pace by writing for longevity. Incorporating empathy into the tone of each message also helps to provide a pathway.
Remember Your Partners in Storytelling and Put ‘The Positive’ in Context
Public relations professionals have built-in partners in the media to help share our messages. This means we can reach out to the media to showcase the positive things our organizations are doing – including how we have helped people feel safe during the pandemic. But, with the media’s routines disrupted too, storytelling looks and feels different. As partners, we now share our tools with our friends in the media. This builds trust and relationships.
At Destiny USA, Jankowski – who started her career as a journalist – draws from her media background to compile the elements she knows reporters need to tell stories, including how to tell those stories from a safe, digital distance.
“Before COVID, we’d invite the media on the property to come get their B Roll, to do their interviews, but now we’re doing more of that ourselves,” she explained. “Before we opened to the public, we hired a film crew to come in and take video of how we enhanced our cleaning, to show what we’re doing around the property and the procedures we’ve put in place to keep everyone safe.” Jankowski shared that video with regional media, and it was used to tell Destiny’s reopening story.
Social media is another way we can enhance our messaging – allowing communications professionals to strategically celebrate an organization’s positive news during uncertain times as well. We’ve seen this expertly done to highlight the heroes (on the front lines and behind the scenes) who have kept their organizations running.
By keeping messaging centered around employees, organizations can show appreciation in a way that matters to those employees. “It’s about focusing on their personalities, what they do, and what they’re trying to do for our community,” Abrams says.
Adopting this philosophy now, and proactively working it into your organization’s communications processes, will make messages of appreciation seem natural later on. Your heartfelt, well-intentioned recognition will come across as just that: genuine. It will provide a boost to your organization’s morale, strengthen company culture, and position your team to be a cohesive, respected unit.