Communicating the unknown; reflecting on a year of COVID-19 comms

Have you ever told someone a story, only to stop before it ends because you don’t know the ending? Probably not, as you want to know how it concludes, and so will they…

This weekend marks a year since I started communicating coronavirus messages.

Reflecting on what has caused chaos across the world, the pandemic has created an uncertainty that has elevated stress and anxiety. It has prompted tunnel vision, resulting in people focusing on the present rather than the future. With information being incomplete or inconsistent, and people feeling unsure about what they know – or what anyone knows – behavioural science points to an increased human desire for transparency, guidance, and making sense out of what is happening.

At times like this, a leader’s words and actions can help keep people safe. As communicators, the information we share helps people to adjust and cope emotionally, allowing individuals to put their experience into context – and draw meaning from it.

Saying it has been difficult for comms professionals is no understatement.

A time before the pandemic

Amongst all the rush, an individual enticed me to a stall, daring me to take a shot in exchange for a prize.

Shot 1: Nothing.

Shot 2: Close, but still nothing.

Shot 3: Nothing, again!

Every time I thought I’d hit the target, it moved.

The preparation I had done felt wasted but the desire to achieve something meant I kept trying – I wanted to hit that target and wasn’t going to give up! At least not until I ran out of change!


The past year has felt like that fair [carnival] experience, but minus the fun! Communicators in all sectors have worked day and night to deliver a moving target. It comes as no surprise that a GIF I shared on Twitter, which represented this, resonated with many:

So, what have I learnt from the past 12 months? Here are a few of the lessons that will stay with me beyond the pandemic…

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Some of the best work I have seen and done over the past 12 months has involved collaboration. As a manager, I found that when others joined and supported my team, the motivation and sense of belonging we felt individually, shifted. The chats we had and the sense that we’re in this together helped improve the quality of work we did and the speed it was done at.

The team’s morale also shifted – the comradery between us strengthened and the mindset in which we approached activities and tasks changed and became more positive.

The importance of adapting your leadership style

As my team temporarily grew, the way I managed them also changed. Trust was pivotal, and I found that the time I took to have those conversations helped strengthen relationships.

I’ve written about the importance of nurturing relationships to improve your comms before and included tips on how to do this. For me, empathy is key. Understanding how individuals are feeling (personally and professional) has helped improve relationships with stakeholders and with my direct reports. It has also come through in the projects I have lead and in the communications I have issued. 

Engage your employees before sending comms to other audiences

Before the pandemic, I spent time in meetings talking about the work I did. The conversations often met a so what or what’s in it for me?

Communicating COVID-19 messages has changed this. The interest one internal audience has in what the other is receiving has increased.

Being transparent, making messages available online and using a multi-channel approach has helped.

In my organisation, a university, I have seen a huge benefit in sharing messages with staff before they have gone out to students. Staff feel seen and have appreciated the extra thought that went in to getting a message to them as it has often helped them in their role. 

Doing this also allowed them to flag improvements we can make to our comms, and they have become advocates; reinforcing central messages in local communications, online and offline.

Never underestimate the power of appreciation

We’ve been conditioned to respond to positive reinforcement from a young age. I’ve personally seen the benefits of introducing rewards, encouraging words and a simple ‘well done’ while home-schooling my children. Though we don’t necessarily complete work for a thank you or reward, showing appreciation can boost how an individual feels, their morale and also help motivate them.

Try it yourself – the next time someone sends you a piece of work, say thank you and comment on something that they have done well. Do this for a month, and you’ll see the relationship between you improve.

Make time for self-care

Many of us have been working long hours, juggling parenting with work and home-schooling while trying to keep on top of day-to-day chores and errands. It’s been a tough year, and even though I have read endless posts about looking after myself, this was often one of the first things that dropped off my list.

Making small changes to my routine has allowed me to fit this in. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you, but some of the things that have helped me include:

  • Waking up 30 mins before the kids so I can quietly enjoy my morning tea.
  • Listening to a podcast while cooking.
  • Putting on some tunes at the end of the day to unwind and relax.
  • Allowing myself time to be distracted by group chats, indulging in conversation about food and things we enjoy. These chats have triggered reflective moments, reminding me to focus on the positives and what I have achieved. They have become a source of joy and escape – to those friends, thank you!

For me, intentionally doing these things has improved my mental health. They have positively impacted how I approach my work. And, every time I go into a new round of COVID-19 comms, they have made it that little bit easier!

I know there are many things I have missed off this list, and I would love to hear more from you about what you’ve learnt over the past 12 months. I’m over on Twitter as @NafisaShafiq, tweet me to carry on the conversation.

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