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What COVID-19 has taught us about communications

We recently hosted an online round table to explore what has the pandemic taught us about communicating with members, and the consequences of getting it wrong.

Key takeaways:

  • The shift to digital is here to stay.

  • If your messages are inconsistent, or worse still contradictory, you’re fostering mistrust.

  • Focussing purely on external communications is a false economy.

  • More than ever, members are looking for authentic and impactful actions.

  • Networking, training and the exchange of ideas are some of the main benefits of joining a membership or trade association, but lately such organisations have also become a ‘go-to’ source of guidance and reassurance.

Communicating the latest COVID-19 news and advice has been a vital service and highlighted the value membership organisations provide. It could explain why most trade associations and membership bodies have experienced a rise in demand for their services during the pandemic.

Change your delivery, not your strategy

As Pelican MD Michael Bennett highlighted, changes in communications during the pandemic have been more about new delivery methods rather than a whole new comms strategy. Traditional printed newsletters have been made available online, conferences have been carried out virtually and meetings are taking place via Zoom.

These changes are not only here to stay, but have been the source of positive changes.

Lee Davies, chief executive of The Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys, said: “We’ve seen a massive engagement increase from members primarily because we started doing things differently. For example we introduced a podcast which is listened to around the globe and our members really value it now.”

Similarly, Robin Osterley, chief executive of the Charity Retail Association noted: “We found that by going virtual we’re now able to address every part of the country equally, which makes an enormous difference to the levels of engagement. I was really worried in March that people wouldn’t be able to afford to renew their membership but it quickly became apparent that they couldn’t afford not to.”

Consistency is key

A common complaint since the first lockdown last March has been that messages from government are too confusing. MPs have openly contradicted each other about restrictions and the string of sudden U-turns have made us all dizzy.

The immediate consequences of mixed messages are frustration and confusion. In the longer term, poor communications create a damaging lack of trust.

Don’t give out advise, however well-intentioned, until you’re 100% clear of what that advise is. In times of uncertainty it’s a good idea to create information hubs on websites and set up dedicated helplines, and many membership organisations have done this in response to both the pandemic and Brexit.

But it’s not just crisis communications that require consistency. Although they’re all too often ignored, there’s a good reason brand guidelines exist. They help keep everyone on the same page and maintain consistent messaging across your marketing materials, social media and website.

This helps prospective members understand you and your offering, and builds credibility with existing members. If your messages are inconsistent, or worse still contradictory, you’re subtly fostering a sense of mistrust.

Internal comms should not be an afterthought

Organisations often argue external communications are a better use of resources than internal, but the pandemic may prove this a false economy.

More businesses in all sectors are now realising that an effective communications campaign starts with a good internal comms strategy. Employees will always remember how they were treated during this crisis, and when it’s over, your association’s reputation could well hinge on how well you communicated with employees during this time.

Quick reaction times are essential

The COVID-19 crisis is still constantly evolving, which means membership organisations need to react faster and with more flexibility than ever before. What works for your communications strategy this today won’t necessarily apply tomorrow.

This means drawn-out approval processes need to change. The days where a single blog or social media post is passed through every team for sign-off may be at an end. Instead, make sure your communications team is properly briefed and trust them to say the right thing at the right time.

Remember your purpose

While many trade associations and professional bodies have been under extreme pressure to sustain membership and other services, they have also experienced a renewed sense of purpose.

Tempting though it might be, now is not the time for heavy-handed sales pitches to boost membership numbers. To avoid accusations of capitalising on a crisis, find ways to help your community and employees that are in line with your purpose as a business.

Don’t look for tenuous links that make it appear you are helping the most vulnerable if you’re really just thinking of your bottom line. People can see through it. More than ever, prospective and existing members are looking for authentic and impactful actions from the organisations they trust.

Carey Trevill, CEO of the British Promotional Merchandise Association, recommends including members into your communications: “We did weekly webinars throughout the year, but importantly, they weren’t just about what we were saying, but about what our members said as well. We invited quite a few of our members on to share their experiences and found there were common threads and challenges, which stopped people feeling quite so alone.”

It remains to be seen how much of our pre-pandemic comms habits will return when life returns to normal. Chris Jones, CEO of England Athletics, envisages a best-of-both-worlds scenario:

“We invested three years ago in a new digital strategy so were able to adapt quite quickly and convert the things face-to-face activities to virtual. That will be here to stay through a blended approach because there are certain things you simply have to do in person. But converting to digital has allowed us to engage with a bigger number of people and made us more efficient as an organisation.”


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