Communicating through the Coronacoaster 

The Corona virus has given us the most extreme case study in rapid transformation, with the entire world going on the change curve.

Public Sector communications have been at the frontline, often quite literally, of this change. As we move from the initial response and through recovery, there is a new role for communications and marketing teams that will be critical as we now rethink and reimagine services for the future.

Through this crisis, we have seen an initial response from everyone, with organisations acting quickly to respond to the situation and make immediate changes. Then organisations have gone on to recover – returning to operational health as much as possible and reactivating areas of business that they can – such as the NHS now addressing cancer and elective care waitlists and local authorities reopening recycling centres. We came together (virtually) with communications and marketing colleagues across Government and Public Services to discuss what comes next. This perspective summarises their collective thoughts.

As we enter the next stage organisations will start to rethink how operations look and feel in the new normal. This new world will include how to embed smarter working as the norm and move away from estate and location as the drivers of where and how services are delivered – this acceptance of remote working may be an opportunity to drive long-sought-after self-service models in the public sector (as we are already starting to see across GP services). 

Organisations need to think about how to engage employees to move beyond a return to normal. Crisis patterns of working have provided a unique opportunity to cut across team silos and deliver a service more focused on the customer. We have seen this in local authorities, with many social care operations moving to 7 day, 8 to 8 working to mirror the NHS because it is what the customer needs. There is also an opportunity to create more of a partnership dialogue across public sector organisations – many of the public sector supply chains involve multiple public bodies, and in responding to the crisis we have seen organisational differences being set aside in the interest of the citizen. We must build on this to ensure the benefits of doing things in a different way are not lost.

Moving beyond rethink, we also explored how Government and Public Service organisations can reimagine themselves; COVID-19 has created a shift in expectations of individuals as citizens, it has also created a change in the demand profile – we are seeing different crime types, different care needs, greater need for broadband, first time unemployed and a greater need for charitable contributions and delivery support. Public sector organisations cannot simply do more – yes there is often greater funding, but there are capacity constraints, and everyone will need to prioritise and consider different thresholds for what qualifies for support. To achieve this, organisations will need to engage a broader supply chain, hand more off to the voluntary sector and other partners, and communicate really effectively with their staff and service users about any new thresholds.

So, how can communications and marketing functions recalibrate and reimagine themselves to support these changes? 

Embrace the boundaries that have been broken down in getting things done

Building on the momentum of the past few months, there is a continued opportunity to break down boundaries, across team and location. COVID-19 has seen a shift to people focussing more on outcome rather than just their discipline and a reduction in siloed working across teams. 

Leverage the position of Comms and Marketing at the heart of things rather than the end – shaping strategy with the audience in mind

The role of Comms has also changed. Over the past few months, it has moved to the heart of activity from a traditional position at the end of a process. Comms teams are getting earlier sight of what’s coming (for example, policies) and with this, greater opportunities to provide insight and influence to the benefit of the user. 

Think again about physical location, use cases for space and access to talent

There has been a levelling of locations; before the crisis so much of communications and marketing energy was centred on London. There is a huge opportunity now to rethink location and estates strategy, sharply refining the use cases for physical and digital interaction and raising the bar on what is possible. 

Add ‘psychological state’ as a dimension of attitude when we segment audiences

This is especially important throughout this change curve as comms and engagement will need to be tailored to the likely psychological state of individuals through the pandemic as this will greatly impact the way they receive and interpret messages.

Where COVID-19 has changed working patterns, keep the best practice ie quicker sign off for rapid activity and the protection of longer term thinking on strategy and planning.

There has been a fundamental shift in behaviours across comms and marketing too, with COVID-19 being a real accelerator for some of the more traditional departments and organisations, and some of the poor behaviours being eliminated. And many colleagues have found they have the kind of sign-off processes they could only have dreamed of – empowerment, trust in their professional judgment, shortened timelines and perhaps an acceptance for what ‘good enough’ looks like. Some comms teams have inevitably been swamped, whereas for others, it has meant a much quieter time as their activity has been put on hold – providing the much needed space to focus on long term and strategic planning. 

Act on what the crisis has exposed – good people being accelerated, bad people getting worse

Whilst there are many opportunities for comms and marketing functions to reimagine and reinvent themselves, of course there are also some learns. Many organisations have found there has been a dichotomy in team performance, with engaged high performers accelerating whilst low performers have struggled harder. Challenges with diversity issues in terms of communicating with different audiences have also been highlighted. And in some cases, underlying issues around lack of co-ordination and oversight have been critically exposed. The crisis has brought many of these issues right up the agenda and should change the prioritisation of transformation and change.

What is clear is, as the world moves to the final stages of the change curve towards acceptance and problem solving and we come out of these strange times, comms and marketing functions should take account of what they have learned, continue to be innovative and challenge the norms and as we embark on future transformations, challenging themselves on what is really possible. 

If you would like to get in touch to discuss the above challenges and opportunities for your organisation as we rethink and reimagine a new normal, please don’t hesitate to contact James Easterbrook or Leila Callaghan

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James has 20 years of experience applying creative thinking to business challenges and specialises in customer transformation.

James Easterbrook Client Director

Leila is a leader in our Government and Public Services sector who brings proven experience in large scale transformation and programme delivery, keeping the customer at the heart of the change

Leila Callaghan Principal