woman in quarantine on social media

Communicators are Making a Difference On COVID-19. We Must Keep it Up.

By: Brad Ross, Chief Communications Officer, City of Toronto

October 5, 2020

[Editor’s Note: Periodically, The Social Shake-Up’s sister brand PRNEWS interrupts its tactics, tips and strategies posts to offer words of encouragement to communicators. You can find the previous essay in this series here.]

COVID-19 began knocking at our door in January. When we answered, we suddenly found it pounding at the back door. When we rushed there, we then found it clawing at our basement windows.

Like a bad horror movie-cum-reality show, COVID-19 has been inside our house since March, when the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, taking lives and the economy with it.

As communicators, we had no choice but to respond as we do: reacting quickly and nimbly, calmly and with determination. We’ve spent most of 2020 in crisis mode.

A few weeks ago, during an online conference, someone stated, with great certainty, that every crisis is predictable, save for, say, a Martian invasion. The speaker said “my head explodes” when someone declares we could never have predicted COVID-19.

While pandemics have always lurked, COVID-19 was not something any of us, as communicators, could have predicted and prepared for. If we knew then what we know now, this crisis could have been averted entirely.

Of course, there will always be those who find fault and critique our efforts, but they are frequently not the ones on the ground. Only those tasked with managing COVID-19 communication can understand fully the practical challenges faced, which are legion.

In this situation, communicators have been, and continue to be, reactive, which is hardly ideal. But there is no communication playbook for COVID-19. Anyone who suggests there is, is misinformed and, not to put too fine a point on it, dead wrong.

Public Health Must Lead

What is right, is that public health must lead. And it has.

In Canada, measures to protect us were prescribed and implemented in late winter and early spring, and we saw a positive dent in virus spread by summer. Our communication efforts were instrumental in that.

The problem we face today, though, is fatigue around the measures that necessarily continue as a second wave has started knocking. More concerning, in many respects, are those who do not accept continuance of public health measures, like wearing masks.

Washing hands, physical distancing, avoiding indoor crowds, limiting interactions with those outside your household and, yes, wearing masks, all the while allowing for a limited reopening of the economy, is what public health has prescribed while we wait for a vaccine. Explaining the need to follow doctors’ orders is the communication mountain we all continue to scale.

Use every channel you have (hello, TikTok), be creative, take some risks, help your leaders lead, learn from missteps and trust the public to understand the hard truths when they need telling.

Whatever you do, don’t let this long, drawn-out crisis, and its critics, cause you to question the effectiveness of your hard work. Solid communication in support of public health will be the difference-maker. There is no communication quick fix or panacea, just hard work. Our industry, with few exceptions, has done us all proud. Keep going.

Brad Ross is Chief Communications Officer of the City of Toronto

At The Social Shake-Up