One year ago the first case of the novel virus COVID-19 was recorded in Wuhan, China, and the world was caught off guard as governments, scientists and health authorities struggled to contain the corona crisis and communicate to the panicking public what they should do to stop spreading the virus

It took weeks before the Chinese authorities confirmed the spread of the coronavirus after information on the earliest case on 17 November 2019 leaked out – and throughout 2020 the world has struggled to comprehend the scale of the pandemic that has so far killed over 1.3 million people and infected more than 55 million.

Communications has suffered a battering in many parts of the world, especially in the western democracies where political leaders proved slower to react than in South East Asia where schools & universities were swiftly shut down and whole cities and regions went into early lockdown. China, in particular, has tried to make up for what looked like clumsy cover-ups when the first outbreaks occurred and closed borders and businesses to stop the virus spreading.

Meanwhile countries like Spain and the United Kingdom were slower to respond, and even when they did close non-essential shops and schools & universities in the spring they appeared too quick off the mark to try to “get back to normal” over the summer.

Lessons thrown out of window

Lessons learned from the first wave of the pandemic about staying at home and social distancing were thrown out of the window, at least in Europe during the summer, with people jetting off on holiday and helping to spread the virus from country to country.

Chancellor Riski Sunak launching ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ campaign: Image:LabourList

In the UK, pubs and restaurants reopened and Chancellor of Exchequer Riski Sunak even launched his infamous ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ discounted dinning campaign with tax-payers’ money in August, as part of a communications blitz to boost business.

Schools reopened in September in the UK. Universities and colleges soon followed, despite strong advice from independent scientists and academic unions for universities to teach online where possible, at least until after Christmas and New Year.

They wanted to avoid what happened in the United States, which suffered large outbreaks of COVID-19 attributed to freshers’ partying in university halls of residence as they celebrated the start of their first ‘happy days’ on campus.

So, now we find much of Europe, including the UK, back in lockdown.

Pubs, restaurants, gyms, hairdressers’ and non-essential shops are shuttered again, travel restrictions have been re-imposed and everyone is urged to ‘work from home’ and ‘stay indoors’ to save the health service from being overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases.

Fencing in students at Manchester 

Schools, colleges and universities are among the few places still open in the UK, but it has hardly been anything like plain-sailing or ‘getting back to normal’.

The University of Manchester is one of several leading UK institutions of higher education suffering a battering of criticism for its handling of the start of the new academic year, with its vice-chancellor Nancy Rothwell and senior staff forced to discuss student concerns after a chaotic start to term, including a botched attempt to fence in students self-isolating in Its Fallowfield halls of residence.

Students at Manchester University demonstrating after fencing erected around halls. Image:Mancunion

The whole saga has been widely played out in the mainstream media and on social networks and it will be interesting to see how badly the university’s reputation has been tarnished.

Relentless pressure

For those working in university communications, as well as across the media industry, the whole coronavirus crisis has meant relentless pressure to keep up with a rapidly changing story, with social media managers often being the first to receive insults thrown at management – but lacking the necessary information from above to respond as quickly as they would like.

This has hardly been helped by zig-zagging government-imposed restrictions and completely unnecessary cock-ups, such as the A-level results saga in England, which I and many others warned about back at the start of summer.

Solidarity and sharing

But one thing that has helped to sustain morale among those working in areas such as media relations, corporate communications and social media is the comradeship shown by colleagues working across the sector, both nationally and internationally.

The swift move to online working and restrictions on travel meant annual gatherings and conferences have been replaced by webinars on Zoom and closed-group chats on Facebook, WhatsApp or wherever.

What these online discussions have done is encourage solidarity and a sharing among public relations and communications professionals of not just the problems  but also positive experiences of overcoming  this or that crisis in communications with students, staff and other stakeholders.

I’ve attended quite a few such sessions and reported on one HE lessons learned from communicating in a corona crisis for University World News on 25 July 2020, which was organised by the European university comms association (EUPRIO) and its French partner association, ARCES.

I’ve done several blogs for EUPRIO after talking to higher education communication professionals from universities around Europe, including the latest looking at the specific challenges facing staff and students as campuses reopened for the start of the 2020-21 academic year while cases of COVID-19 were on the rise again.

Honest and timely communications

These group sessions allow colleagues to see that they are not alone in having senior management unable to keep up with the need to provide honest and timely communications to gain and maintain the trust of key groups in what are often stressful situations.

They also allow successful initiatives to be shared, such as the way the communication team at the University of Innsbruck in Austria put the social distancing and other COVID-19 health & safety messages across at the start of the new academic year in a cheery YouTube video.

Long may such initiatives continue to support all of us, whether we are working in-house or as freelancers, trying to do the best job we can in terms of communicating during this all-consuming, energy-draining crisis.

So, my parting message here is: Look after your own and everyone else’s mental health, including work colleagues, friends, family, students and everyone you come across during the dark winter months ahead.

Let’s hope the vaccines reduce the number of confirmed cases of the virus in the New Year so we can start to think about meeting face-to-face again later in 2021.

This story will obviously continue! So, until the next time: Stay Safe and always stress the importance of good communications to your management!

+ Main image: Mass testing underway during the first wave of COVID-19 after China confirmed the outbreak of the coronavirus: Image:Aljazerra

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