At the start of 2020, I took what I thought would be a brief sabbatical from a career in PR to work as a foreign language teacher at a French bilingual school. Unbeknownst to me, I made this decision just weeks before a global pandemic upended everyone’s lives. My day-to-day changed radically, from writing press releases, organising roundtable events and liaising with businesses, to becoming a front line worker.
I observed, from the sidelines, as communications and media industries underwent an unprecedented crisis, as the dissemination of fake news wrought irrevocable damage. The spread of misinformation about Covid-19 was ever present; President Trump publicly speculated on disinfectant, and rumours that Putin had released lions onto the streets of Russia began to circulate. Media outlets were faced with the challenge of delivering often complex facts in as clear and concise a way as possible, while cutting through the noise.
I, meanwhile, had my own communications challenge to deal with. How could I best explain to small children that they could no longer play with their favourite soft toys in class for fear of contamination? How could I explain to them the isolated class ‘bubbles’; why they had to remain socially distanced from their friends; why they could no longer play with them? Among these concerns, I had to figure out how I could communicate with a class of infants in their second language, while wearing a surgical face mask, providing reassurance and care at the same time.
Clear and effective communication in the classroom is integral to teaching at all levels. Teaching something new entails understanding and breaking down any complex information, and explaining it clearly (either verbally or in writing), while holding your audience’s attention. Teachers must also listen to students, responding articulately to questions and clarifying any misunderstanding. The teaching process, honed by educators over centuries, is not at all dissimilar to the approach we adopt in our role as communications advisors, offering counsel and clear direction to clients.
The importance of communication and clarity has been highlighted in the past couple of years. Overcoming these obstacles, and returning to PR, two years later, I was nervous that I’d be out of touch. Yet as the months have gone by, I am ever conscious that my time as a teacher has enriched my practice as a communicator, and encouraged me to go back to basics.
When it comes to navigating uncertain times, the pandemic has certainly demonstrated that honesty, authenticity and transparency is the best approach. A number of brands sought to take advantage of the crisis, in an attempt to drum up some shameless self-promotion. For example, during the worst scarcity of PPE, a number of Subway stores advertised they would give away free surgical masks to customers who bought two sandwiches. Since the invasion of Ukraine, we have seen similar ambulance-chasing from brands, but audiences are weary of such self-serving communications.
Simple and concise communication has proven by far the most effective approach, especially at a time of media oversaturation. Breaking down language and cutting out jargon helps to build confidence and trust in the message being delivered. Simplicity is also crucial to offering effective counsel, and of course, increases the likelihood of such advice being heeded. Communicating in simple terms ensures the recipient can easily digest alternative approaches. To communicate one’s difference of opinion without appearing dismissive is one of the most important skills a PR can develop.
As communications advisors, we have to keep asking questions – simply and directly. As we emerge into a post-pandemic world, comms solutions can often be found by going back to basics, and reminding ourselves that every word counts.