Communicating is harder in the pandemic

22 Apr 2021 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 22 Apr 2021

Photo by Sticker Mule on Unsplash
Photo by Sticker Mule on Unsplash

Covid-19 has left charities will a range of challenges that is broad and deep. One of these is communications, a crucial – but oft overlooked – aspect of any organisation.

 

Good communications are vital.

However, for third sector organisations, comms are never the highest priority – frontline services are. This is understandable, but it comes at a cost.

A recent survey of hundreds of UK charities by Media Trust has laid out some of the major communications challenges facing the third sector since the onset of Covid-19.

Unsurprisingly, many organisations have placed more emphasis on digital and online comms but obstacles remain both in production of content and with accessibility for different audiences.

Media Trust is a charity that “works in partnership with the media and creative industry to give marginalised groups and young people a stronger voice.” It found that the top three comms challenges charities face are: producing digital content, for example, films, vlogs, infographics (53%); digital exclusion when audiences do not have access to technology or the internet (52%); and supporting users who would normally have access to face-to-face services (48%).

Few people will be surprised that crafting content is difficult during the pandemic. Issues about audience accessibility might raise a few more eyebrows, but they make sense.

Service users are not the only stakeholders in the third sector, but they are a significant subgroup in terms of size (and the most important subgroup, in general). Furthermore, they are more likely to face their own digital accessibility challenges (one way or another) than the population at large.

Other audiences – including internal ones – are also harder to reach. Working from home has many plus points but certain types of collaboration (those handled smoothly by a ten-second chat, for instance) are easier when people share an office.

Simply pivoting to digital is not going to overcome all barriers.

Findings

More key findings from the survey include:

  • More than 50% of respondents said their ability to communicate effectively with stakeholders has improved since March 2020.
  • 75% said their workload has increased since lockdown and 59% said their responsibilities at work has increased.
  • When asked what pro-bono support they most needed, 46% of respondents said they needed support in social media and digital marketing and 45% in film and content production.
  • In terms of training delivery, 82% of respondents said they want to access training via live webinars, with only 15% looking for large face-to-face groups.

The first two bullet points here should be considered together.

It seems that charities have adapted somewhat to Covid-19 over time, which is good, but this has placed a burden on staff. Individual organisations should pay attention to whether this dynamic is sustainable (the likelihood is it will be for some – but not for others).

The report quotes several respondents, including Laura Andre from Scotland-based charity Health in Mind, who said: “People are finding it more challenging to switch off when working from home and are finding themselves working longer days as personal and professional boundaries have blurred. Many have also faced additional pressure, trying to juggle work with childcare while schools are closed, or coping with redundancies and large parts of the sector being furloughed.”

Another finding from the survey is that, despite an apparent improvement in comms since the start of the pandemic, 50% of respondents said the lockdowns since November have been the hardest from a comms perspective.

Per the report: “While comms and digital skills seem to be improving, workload and work responsibilities have increased significantly — inevitably putting more strain on the comms function within charities.

“Comms teams are more stretched, services are more in demand and resources and budgets are tight, meaning comms is still a very challenging area for most charities…

“Encouragingly more than 50% of respondents said their ability to communicate effectively with stakeholders has improved since March 2020 and over 60% have improved confidence in their organisation’s digital skills.”

The importance of communications

Covid-19 has put a squeeze on the third sector. In the simplest terms, demand for services has skyrocketed at the same time as short- and long-term resourcing has shrunk.

Even before the pandemic, the third sector was living in financially-straitened times, so the current circumstances are extremely tough.

Many organisations have shown great agility and adaptability – being nimble is one of the sector’s strengths – but this only goes so far. Difficult choices have to be made and, often, communications will take a hit.

Communications is not (or should not be) simply a distinct, standalone part of any organisations. Comms should work towards core aims and, in doing so, work across many if not all aspects of an org’s structure.

Good communications can tie an organisation’s work together. It can empower service users and keep them informed, do the same with frontline workers, it can help raise awareness of campaigning issues or other fundamental concerns, and it can help bring in funding.

Organisations may not be able to invest much more money in their comms teams – and not all the challenges posed by Covid-19 can be overcome with more cash – but surveys and research like this are important because, in the absence of better finances, threading the needle towards an effective communications strategy is the best hope for orgs who want to maximise the effectiveness of their work.

Comms is vital. Charities should not forget this, even if they don’t have huge amounts of money to invest.

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