Trust and authenticity are vital for comms and media during the pandemic

As much as the phrase ‘nothing has changed’ came to define the communications failure of Theresa May’s premiership, ‘everything has changed’ looms large over Boris Johnson’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

Which companies and organisations will rise to the comms challenge of coronavirus, and which will not? asks Dan Johnson
Which companies and organisations will rise to the comms challenge of coronavirus, and which will not? asks Dan Johnson

The dogma around some of the Cummings and Cain modes of communication is shifting as rapidly as the virus is spreading, with the BBC, rightly, being embraced, and the entrenched favouritism in the Lobby system eroding in the face of the necessity of communicating coherently and cohesively.

Experts like Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance are not only back in the fold, but to the fore.

What does this mean for the broader communications ecosystem?

The quality news media must continue to focus on the importance of fact-led storytelling in journalism. Trust is critical to the news industry’s future.

This is also of paramount importance to the PR and communications sector.

Not only in the sense that trust and authenticity is the fulcrum of any successful campaign, but that a reliable – and relied-upon – media is an absolute necessity.

Faith in news brands, corporate as well as individual journalists, is needed if organisations – be they government departments, multinationals or local businesses – are going to effectively communicate with the public and engender the kind of responses and behaviours needed for societies to successfully navigate these unprecedented times.

Journalism must not shirk this responsibility.

COVID-19 presents opportunities, as well as challenges, for the communications and news-media sectors.

It is an open secret in the news industry that 2016 heralded a ‘Brexit bonus’ and ‘Trump bump’ for quality news providers. The flipside of this was the propagation of fake news, which remains a corrosive force.

We have already seen people’s thirst for clear and objective information – viewing figures for broadcast news are through the roof.

The same principles apply for any organisation's response; communications comes into its own in a crisis.

Effective interventions support policy positions, underpin trust in organisations and nurture critical relationships.

In addition to the trust and authenticity that should be at the heart of every communications strategy, honesty and empathy need to be front and centre.

Brands and practitioners who have already embraced these elements as central to their communications efforts can thrive.

But levels of scrutiny on the business practices and ethos of companies will only increase.

Some of the biggest names in the corporate world have already found this out to their cost.

Now is the time for sound communications practices to be driving business decisions.

What seemed a fair shareholders’ dividend, pricing policy or director’s remuneration in normal times has already become unacceptable as the state underpins virtually all aspects of the economy.

COVID-19 is unlike any modern peacetime crisis.

The speed and ubiquity of its effects means even greater consideration needs to be given to the purpose and positioning of organisations.

People will remember who communicated thoughtfully and openly.

They may forgive missteps, but a failure to display empathy as well as clarity could prove unsustainable.

Dan Johnson is the policy and communications adviser for Dow Jones and former comms director for the Premier League


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