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16 March 2020

261: Coronavirus and public affairs

As together we face the ‘worst public health crisis for a generation’, the impact on individuals, families, communities and organisations will be huge. We all have to work out what it means for doing our jobs as well and public affairs is no different.

I must admit to stopping and thinking twice before writing this post but as the virus is impacting on all our lives it would seem churlish to simply ignore it. Whatever our job is we have to continue to deliver whilst dealing with the consequences of the virus and reflecting the government advice as well.

So here are some thoughts about how public affairs should continue during this time:

  • level of communications – government does not want to stop operating, that would send out completely the wrong signals. To whatever extent possible, it has to be ‘business as usual’. But we all need to reflect on whether the issue we are dealing with is really an urgent matter for government or whether, in reality, the communications could wait a few weeks? In the case of Number 10 and the Department for Health and Social Care, frankly I would leave them alone at the moment;
  • key issues – having said that, there are obviously some sectors especially those delivering front line services and / or those working with older people who really need to help the country cope with the impact of the virus. In those cases, you need to know who to get the information to and how. Such urgent matters may arise but if they do, advise the government on what they should do. Now, more than ever, do not simply complain at them, give them solutions to help us all through this;
  • don’t go to the media – any communications through the media should be treated with extreme caution. Tensions and sensitivities are heightened and media stories could be blown out of all proportion to easily become ‘scare stories’. So, start through the direct channels and look for a quiet way through any problem;
  • engagement in parliament – for the time being, just get on with the organising! Be aware that parliament will issue instructions on what they intend to do. In other words, don’t hit the cancel button too early in case everything progresses fine with no disruption. However, do work out what you will have to do if you have to cancel at short notice, whatever the engagement is, events, meetings, launches etc. You may choose to hold an event elsewhere but if parliamentarians are your main target audience then if parliament has been suspended because of the virus then they are extremely unlikely to be around. In that case go for a postponement or, if the event is being held then because of a particular timing issue then cancel it. If the event is part of a wider communications effort then think about the implications across the media channels as well; and
  • think about the future – it is worth thinking about other forms of engagement, such as using webinars or live-streaming smaller scale discussions (and recording them for later use). Trying to look for the positives, it may be a way of testing out some new engagement techniques for use in the future. But the reality is that most issues simply do not rate very highly at the moment. In which case for most organisations, think about pausing for a while and plan to start again after the Easter recess.

I really hope these few thoughts help. Everything else pales into insignificance against the human cost of the virus but at some point we will come through this and we can get back to normality.

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