Communication in times of a pandemic

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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With all events and activities cancelled from March to May (at least), and the planet literally holding its breath following the spread of the virus, what is the role of communication in an organisation that is not standing in the front line of defence against the pandemic? Nikos Lampropoulos explains.

Nikos Lampropoulos is a press and media activities expert in ESPON EGTC.

This was the question that many organisations had to answer when the outbreak of the COVID-19 occurred. Shifting to teleworking, the staff continued to work on current projects and researchers continued delivering, but it was obvious that the attention of our audiences was fixed to any news and updates related to the pandemic.

According to two out of three most used hashtags on Twitter in March were related to the coronavirus crisis.

Of course, you don’t need monitoring tools to tell you that. You can see the threads in your social media. Or check the news, where journalists also focused almost solely on coronavirus-related news. Everyone – and everything – seems to be adjusting to this new temporary (?) reality that absorbs all our energy and attention.

As communicators are also citizens and humans, they are also absorbed by the COVID-19 madness. News not related directly, or indirectly, to the epidemic seem irrelevant. Discussions, since February, on the new MFF, the European Commission’s New Green Deal and even the New Cohesion Policy today seem out of context.

Many organisations tried to quickly adapt. They mobilised their networks to provide support to the member states, local authorities or individuals and help them address the direct challenges and needs.

Best practices for supporting the elderly and free content for entertainment and education was given and more online services were available by the administrations; this secondary level of support is also important -even if some argue that there is no time for local authorities to watch and learn in the middle of the fight.

Harnessing the flow of ideas is always profitable and, alternatively, they can be stocked for future crises.

Some might say that the best thing for those not in the front line, is to remain silent, reduce (social) media noise and help the relevant and responsible voices be heard. It is not the time to discuss the future of our planet and that of businesses, when we do not know how Europe will be shaped in the post-crisis era.

But there could be a different path to take.

Since the beginning of the crisis, companies, organisations and  institutions said they have adjusted quickly to the new situation: working from home but delivering more or less the same amount and quality of work as before.

Maybe this is what communication should also do: Go back to business as usual, communicate on the results of research on climate change, discuss the need for stronger cross-border cooperation, promote innovation and results. It will also be useful to citizens, distracting them from counting deaths and watching infection diagrams every five minutes.

Some companies and associations went through these three stages. From silence to limiting communication to the absolutely necessary practical information and then, little by little – also as people got used to this new reality – to business as usual.

In the course of time, COVID-19’s hashtags are becoming one more trend, one more way to promote products and services.

As has always been the case in history, humanity’s continuous survival lay in its ability to adapt and communication was supporting this adaptation. Communication’s role in Europe is not only to inform the citizens but to fight fake news and propaganda that are trying once again to hijack the public debate and mislead the citizens.

The pandemic dramatically changed our way of living and working. Whether temporarily or permanently, this remains to be seen. But will it change our way of communicating? It might change the narrative, but will it change the narration?

History so far suggests that it will not. The new element of the current crisis was that it took the whole world by surprise. As we adapt to the new situation, and emergency becomes the new norm, communication will adapt the messages but use the same channels as before. The new era looks surprisingly much like the old one.

This op-ed expresses personal opinions and not those of the organisation.

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