Communicating in a pandemic
Updated: Jan 26, 2022
by Timothy Pigeon, PR student, January 25, 2022, Mount Royal University
In the spring of 2020, most of the world came to a standstill with the Coronavirus pandemic essentially shutting everything down. From international travel to everyday routines, normal life as we knew it, was about to be turned upside down. Alex Knight, the national corporate communications manager at the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada, remembers how the pandemic changed her communications duties at the time.
“COVID-19 changed the communications game. The first three months turned me into a crisis communications manager, sending out urgent news bulletins
to our members as legislation changed by the second,” she said.
This was an abrupt change to what she had known prior to COVID-19. She used to spend much of her days “telling stories of all the good works done by my team.”
As the corporate communications manager, Alex’s job is to manage the internal communications of the organization, including website, member portal, events, and news bulletins for the PCAC -- an organization dedicated to advocacy and labour management services for unionized organizations in the construction industry. Knight is also the chairperson of the organization’s Communications Committee, which facilitates coordination between internal and external communications, like media relations activities.
During the first three months of the pandemic in 2020, instead of communicating important labour relations information to stakeholders, working with leaders of mega projects like TransMountain or LNG Canada, or engaging in government advocacy on such issues as labour code reform, Knight says things were just very “hectic”. Complicating the scenario was the fact that the organization served many provinces and there were different regulations within each province.
“Communicating new laws and policies regarding closures and shutdowns of the construction industry, was hectic,” said Knight. However, she notes a silver lining. “Being thrown into an emergency situation helped us really pivot in terms of our communications.” She said she learned that communication “needed to be short, accurate and concise” and that they were “able to pivot in our writing style to be more direct, as we previously maintained very formal language.” This is, indeed, a PR learning point!
Knight said she found herself, first, needing to send information out to many stakeholders. “There were urgent changes in legislation across Canada, not only on a federal level, but a provincial level, and we needed to be sure to communicate the right messages to the right members.”
“There were approximately four bulletins going out a day, even though right at the start, we told our members that we were restricting communications to essential only, so as not to fill up their inboxes with non-urgent information,” she said. “There was literal minute-by-minute changing information to deal with.”
Another main audience Knight needed to deal with was government. “We needed to be sure to let them know that construction is an essential industry and that work could be completed safely,” she said.
Knight reflected on how communications tools have changed for her. She pointed out how the pandemic threw her organization into the world of new platforms that were not used in previous crisis situations, such as Zoom. But she notes that many communications principles she already knew stood her in good stead, like crisis communications principles. “Without it, over-communicating would have been tempting.”
Knight reiterates her professional take-aways and the positives: “A host of new platforms and less tolerance for long-winded and formal communication,” she says, with a bit of a laugh, noting her new appreciation for bullet points whenever possible.
On a personal note, she says she learned the value of what it means to be “authentic, vulnerable, and in-line with your values as you work on a problem such as this, which can pull you in so many different directions.”
To PR students, Knight says to be successful in a stressful situation like the pandemic, “Stay true to your professional integrity and stay human. That’s the only way to survive as a communicator, especially in a situation such as COVID-19.”
Alex Knight has been in the public relations and communications field for over five years and has been with PCAC in her current role for about four years. For more information on the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada, please visit http://www.pcac.ca/