COVID-19: How PR Practitioners Should Work Remotely in Crisis Management- McMedal- Lagos NIPR Chairman
The Chairman of Nigerian Institute of Pblic Relations (NIPR), Lagos Chapter, Mr Olusegun McMedal bares his mind on PR practice in the period of COVID-19 Pandemic.
The Chief Reputation Strategist of Upticomm Marketing Company, a fast-growing public relations firm, also talks on the impacts of Coronavirus pandemic, Crisis Communication, Working Remotely, Training and retraining and other issues with Tomori Uriel of the SpokespersonsDigest.
Can you tell us the expected role of PR consultants and experts, with regards to helping the country fight COVID-19?
The impact of the COVID-19 is unprecedented. It has affecting every industry all over the world. The present realities of social distancing and lockdowns has altered social and business models. The social and economic life of the people were grounded, they are scared. Worst still, most of the populace don’t have the daily provisions; things are tough, and the future looks uncertain. The world is in crisis! Given this background, it is essential to manage communications which is the work of the public relations professionals. A simple definition of public relations states that is the management of communication between an organisation (including brands and government) and its publics. It is a strategic conversation.
The public relations practitioner is a conduit, a facilitator, and a manager of communication functions. He can help organisations and government in navigating the challenge by creating meanings that foster cooperation and consent for their programmes by the identified publics. Perception, they say, is stronger than reality, public relations consultants can help in shaping the desired perception using appropriate tools. It is their role to counsel leadership on the outcomes of their actions or inactions. The role of PR in crisis period is development communication. It engages stakeholders and policy makers, establishes conducive environments, assesses risks and opportunities and promotes information exchanges to create positive social and economic change through the news media.
What is your assessment of PR experts in their performance so far in the COVID-19 response?
The public relations experts in Nigeria have stepped up to the plate in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in my opinion. You will see them in public and private organisations leading in creating communication solutions to navigate the tough time. They created key messages and hashtags, slogans and tens of to do lists in different languages using different media. They ensured the dissemination of up to date information to key stakeholders and encouraged the continuous engagement of the relevant publics through virtual town hall meetings and communicating the resolutions from such consultations.
What are the challenges to be encountered by PR professionals in the area of their intervention against COVID-19?
One of the immediate challenges they will face is adapting to the new normal. Offices have moved away from brick and mortal to virtual platforms. Unfortunately, most of the old practitioners are not as savvy in using technology. But hope is not lost, this is the best time to unlearn and relearn to remain relevant. The current reality dictates that public relations practitioners must deploy more technological tools for their work including the choice of media channel. Business as usual is no longer good enough. We now live in a world where everything is connected. It is the age of digitization, mobilization, augmentation and disintermediation. The way we work is no longer the same, it requires new skill sets.
What PR strategies can be beneficial and adopted to boost the response against the pandemic?
The federal and state governments have already taken the necessary steps by setting up testing centers and ordering the isolation of affected people, social distancing and lockdowns to contain the spread of the virus. There has been constant sharing of information on the number of persons who have contracted the virus and those who have been cured. Also, they provided palliatives and provisions for a select set of elderly and indigent people in the states under lockdown and announced financial stimulus packages for businesses in Nigeria. Government also canvassed for the support of corporate and well-meaning Nigerians for support to boost response against the deadly pandemic. Lately, they began the house to house search to fish out anyone who didn’t come forward for testing which has been yielding good results.
Are the Isolation Centres adequate?
The isolation centers are inadequate! Government should make available more testing and isolation centers in all the 36 States of the Federation including Abuja and communicate their availability to the public. These centers should have the required personnel and necessary equipment and infrastructure to function. Because we are in a crisis, the periodic media briefing to appraise the public on development to calm frayed nerves and douse tension should be continued including the routine virtual town hall meeting to engage key stakeholders and third-party experts. They should make effective use of the Internet, making sure that their websites are up to date where stakeholders can get current and relevant information. Hotlines and chatbots should be available round the clock. Based on record of inquiries, frequently asked questions (FAQ) should be developed.
How can the media enhance the role of PR experts in ending the Coronavirus crisis?
The goal of media relations, a field of public relations practice, is to establish and maintain solid and ethical relationships with the media for accurate, balanced, timely usage of news materials. Professionals distribute updates through traditional news outlets including popular social media channels and blogs. Because these outlets play the role of credible sources of information, professionals leverage their reach in connecting to the public earning their trust. Experts consider the media as the third-party endorser of their work.
Do you think the strategy of routine media briefing of Coronavirus cases by the NCDC is helping to calm frayed nerves and douse public tension?
When you are facing a crisis, having a routine media briefing is a great strategy to ensure a well-coordinated campaign in the media. A rule in crisis management states that you must stay in control of the message by communicating early and often. During a crisis, it is essential that authorities put a human face on the issue. The routine media briefing by NCDC offers the opportunity to touch people’s emotions, not just their intellect. The government will also be able to interact with the media at the briefings. NCDC is doing well so far and I must commend their communication efforts.
With the advent of COVID-19, many professionals are forced to work from their homes. How can PR professionals enhance their efficiency as most of them now work from home?
The health and safety of the professionals is of utmost importance, they should continue working remotely until a proven solution for COVID-19. Well-meaning businesses and public offices have changed their staff protocols by working remotely. I strongly advise that everyone should work remotely if they do not have any serious need to go out. But to be efficient in working remotely, professionals must unlearn and relearn new habits and refresh their skill sets. First, practitioners must accept (mentally and psychologically) that working remotely is the new normal way of doing things. They must solicit the cooperation of their families, making them understand that they’re not on a holiday, if they want to succeed. They will then earmark a space and set up his office in their home away from distractions. They will start their day early, taking their bath and changing to casual clothes – to put him in “work mode”. They must have a daily work plan if they must make the best use of the situation.
What are the major features and advantages of Working remotely?
With working remotely, calls and emails have taken on more importance. The remote worker must promptly respond to calls, emails, and messaging apps on their mobile devices, and be prepared for virtual meetings. Working remotely is only effective when one is in constant touch with team and clients. Working remotely can result in higher engagement rates and increased productivity levels, if well managed, according to the Harvard Business Review. However, working remotely does encourage a sedentary lifestyle which is not good for our health. Sitting for too can affect our health in ways we may not realize. It increases the chance of developing potentially fatal blood clots that form in the deep veins of the leg. Therefore, it is essential that the remote worker must take short breaks to stretch his legs and straighten his body every hour. It is advised that he should cultivate a daily exercise regimen. Regularly exercises will improve their mood, boost energy and promote better sleep.
What do you have to say about the retrenchment of workers by some organizations?
Given the challenging social and economic situations we are in presently, retrenchment is inevitable! It will happen in the private and public sector as the global economy has shrunk due to the pandemic. Many will leverage the situation to restructure, reorganize and reposition by removing people who are deemed to be of limited value and do not fit into the future or because of low liquidity or client to sustain the business. By the way, human resource expert calls it – rightsizing, not retrenchment. It’s only a matter of time and people should brace up. Having set this background, the most critical step in rightsizing is showing transparency and carrying all the stakeholders along to avoid backlash.
What are the steps to be taken by business firms and corporate organizations, if they intend to recover economically and vibrantly post-COVID-19?
In challenging times, many businesses and corporate organisations cut down their marketing budget! It is a default option though unbeknownst to them it can be counterproductive. Smart businesses increase their marketing budgets in lean periods because that is the time consumers are likely to switch their choices. So, businesses need to help them find their products and services easily. I believed that this is the best time for businesses to increase their public relations budget. This is the time for brands to rejig their communications strategy and approach in a more thoughtful direction, focusing their efforts on helping their customers in navigating the challenge. This crisis period offers a window of opportunity to deepen brand relevance.
Can brands play prominent roles in the current situation?
Brands can leverage credential experts in their COVID-19 communications campaign. We are in an era where knowledge and professionalism count to provide relevant information on shared values to customers to manage the crisis. This is the time to demonstrate kindness and the consumers will remember your brand in good times.