How to navigate a crisis like Covid-19 on social media

GUEST POST: Ethan Wilkinson is a Creative and Digital Strategist. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

While Covid-19 was not the first crisis to affect normal life, nor will it be the last, it has been one of the most disruptive in terms of global impact. Schools closed, millions of employees furloughed and elections postponed, as well as many lives tragically lost.

Social distancing increasingly isolated us by restricting visits to family and friends, the concept of connection took on a new meaning with the role of social media and technology critical.

We are able to see the power of social media when these conversations turn into a community of connections between distant individuals reaching out to help others and create meaningful relationships virtually.

Whether you are a candidate or already elected to local public office, where do you fit into a crisis like this and how can you use social media for good?

Here are five tips to help you navigate a crisis – like Covid-19 – on social media:

1.   Assess the situation online

What is the current mood on social media? What are people talking about, how are they reacting and what hashtags are trending? Social media will provide you a real-time snapshot of how things are on the ground. While it can be difficult to postpone campaigns or cancel certain content, carrying on with business as usual, even when well-intentioned, could look tone-deaf.

2.   Work out if there is a place for you

Once you have assessed the situation and the state of play on social media, determine what role you and your movement can play, and if your audience wants or needs anything from you.

3.   Do NOT turn a crisis into a platform to promote your campaign

Often nearly every aspect of life changes due to a crisis. It might be tempting to find new, creative ways to use social media to promote your campaign while it is abuzz with conversation. However, a word of caution: people can smell opportunistic politicians who are exploiting a crisis from a mile away and won’t be scared to call you out! (Usually on Twitter…) If you have decided that you can’t provide any help, it is better to publish a simple message expressing empathy with the situation. If you are really unsure how to navigate a crisis, stay quiet while you formulate a plan.

4.        Communicate with your community

Humans crave connection and you have the opportunity to open yourself up to conversations within your community to forge bonds. This isn’t a time to solicit votes, but a time to show with words and deeds the care you have for your community.

5.        Lead with empathy, not fear

During a crisis people want to know that we’re all in this together. It can help if we are able to show others how we feel. Use shared experiences to make your content and campaigns authentic and relevant. Use this time to serve your community with positive action, not to capitalise on fear and anxiety, even if you see potential for political point scoring.

Whether you are running for office or already elected, it’s imperative that you have a social media campaign plan that helps you identify your objective, your target audience and any campaign consequences.

I’ve recently launched an eBook teaching local, regional and devolved politicians how to better use social media to connect with their local communities. If Conservative candidates around the country want to win the votes of their local communities, you need to have a plan in place.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for our website.

The craft of communications and the coming culture war

GUEST POST: Jason MacKenzie is Managing Partner of Corporate Communications at Nudge Factory and Past-President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

We’re neck deep in that Orwellian future. Fake news is the new norm, and effective communicators will win the coming clash between the ‘based’ and the ‘woke’.

If you’re not entirely sure what those two sentences mean, but you’ve got a good idea that this is an important debate, you’re in the majority. We’re familiar with the language of Brexit, and the emotive political discourse leading up to the EU referendum. It’s rooted in an older, simpler paradigm. But we now need greater nuance to navigate the rhetorical battlefields of the future.

The US culture wars started in the 1920s, with the clash between rural and urban American values. The term was rebooted in the 1960s, placed centre stage by disagreements between conservatives and progressives over moral issues, including marriage and abortion.

‘Pro-life’ verses ‘pro-choice’ is a classic example of the framing of an issue. On the face of it, both seem positive and widely acceptable positions to adopt. In reality, they are diametrically opposite. One emphasises the sanctity of life, based on the conviction that human rights begin in the womb, the other prioritises the well-being of a mother over her unborn infant. No one ever describes themselves as ‘anti-choice’ or ‘pro-death’.

American pollster Frank Luntz demonstrates the importance of persuasive language in Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, by asking why people dislike big oil.

America’s energy producers have been their own worst enemies…“drilling for oil”…reminds people of Jed Clampett shooting at the ground, conjuring images of liquid black goo gushing into the sky…

The antidote is simple: they replaced ‘drilling for oil’ with ‘energy exploration’ – far more acceptable, at least semantically.

Language matters. Phrasing matters. Framing matters.

Vote Leave won because 17.4 million people understood and embraced ‘Vote leave, take back control’ – most importantly because it encapsulated the underlying message. You could argue that ‘Make America Great Again’ worked for the Republicans in 2016 in the same way, and that ‘Get Brexit done’ delivered an 80-seat majority for the Conservatives six months ago.

But not all air wars are fought by giant industries to reposition themselves, or by political parties to win elections. The coming culture war will be fought on multiple fronts, across social, digital and traditional media, and with myriad voices and factions. While many combatants will simply shout into echo chambers that reinforce their own worldviews, deepening tribalism – others will cut through, and change the way we think, feel and act.

Over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed two major flashpoints. The diehard remain coalition piled pressure on Boris Johnson to sack Dominic Cummings, for actions that Durham Police said “might have been a minor breach of the regulations.” But the Prime Minister’s adviser neither resigned nor was forced out.

The old rules no longer apply. Cummings would not have survived in the pre-Trump era. The US President’s relentless refusal to adhere to convention has crossed the Atlantic. There’s a willingness to stand up to received wisdom, herd mentality and the prevailing media narrative. Whether you believe that this shows craven weakness or bold leadership depends on your worldview and where your loyalties lie.

The second major incident sparked riots, looting, and a torrent of hatred and outrage. The universally-condemned and unjust killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis after being pinned to the floor by police officer Derek Chauvin took place on 25th May. Conservatives, liberals and almost everyone across (and beyond) the political spectrum condemned this instance of police brutality. But from there, narratives and courses of action diverged.

On the one hand, there are calls for law and order to prevail, for justice to be done, and for peace – whether peaceful protesting or other meaningful action. At the other end of the spectrum, anarchic looting and violent protests carried out by the likes of Antifa, the militant left-wing movement. Meanwhile, the middle ground is flooded by virtue-signalling.

Our 52/48 nation will continue to be divided, and social media will play an increasing role as a catalyst, stoking the fires of anger and hatred, and deepening our societal fractures. Even something as innocuous as a blog about whether we need ‘Pride Month’ by young, gay Conservative activist Darren Grimes provoked a furore. “I find it utterly depressing that the pride flag now takes pride of place in our national life over our own national flag” he wrote for Conservative Home. Rather than welcoming debate and the free exchange of ideas, he was pilloried on Twitter, rebutted by PinkNews, and the post was ‘cancelled’ by Facebook.

Free speech is vital for democracy. When social media platforms behave more like publishers, exercising censorship and editorial control, they need to be treated as such. Digital acts of ‘no platforming’ such as ‘temporarily restricting’ Twitter parody account @TitaniaMcGrath, smack of censorship and conscious mass manipulation. This is what the founding father of public relations, Edward Bernays might have called “the engineering of consent”.

Identity politics is here to stay. Tribalism is getting deeper. Truth (and underlying trust in our institutions) is more evasive than ever. That’s why professional communications, precise language and persuasive discourse are needed now more than ever. In the court of public opinion, the most powerful arguments will win. Let’s hope that democracy, decency and common sense prevail.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for our website.

Has social media become more caring during Covid-19?

GUEST POST: Jonny Piper is a digital and creative communications expert, most recently working on the Conservatives General Election Campaign. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

The British pub quiz is one of life’s simple pleasures. Pull together a few friends, pick a team name and enjoy an evening racking your brain; how many moons does Saturn have? Who was the oldest UK Prime Minister to leave office?

And that’s how I spent last Thursday, while enjoying a rather lovely house red. Normally to be avoided, except in this case the house red meant just that – pouring myself a glass while sat at my kitchen table, listening to the – questions at home via WebEx, conferring with friends over Microsoft Teams and clinking glasses with my webcam.

Matt Hancock says coronavirus ‘thrives on social contact’, with social distancing measures a necessary mechanism to slow down the spread of infection. But we too also thrive on social contact, feeding off it to work, learn and grow.  So, it’s no wonder that the ability to continue communicating digitally with friends, family and colleagues has been so crucial and shouldn’t be taken for granted. What on earth would we be doing right now if not for the internet and social media to keep us working, connected, informed and entertained?

I’ve watched this seamless connectivity bring out the best of humanity: caring and compassionate communities that are using digital and social media to bring people together and look out for those in need. Across social media you’ll find businesses innovating and finding new ways of working, an army of digitally co-ordinated volunteers caring for the vulnerable, and individuals channelling their creativity to keep us entertained.

I almost daren’t say it, but I’ve also watched as social media has become more caring. The tone of our conversations is more empathetic. Businesses are abandoning competitive thinking and instead selflessly looking to philanthropy. Party politics and the online vitriol that so often follows has been replaced by a country unified in willing the government to succeed in combatting the virus.

And it’s that spirit which has made this technology so critical; my phone and laptop have become my eyes. WhatsApp and FaceTime have become ears. In isolation, social media has become my integral connection to the world, my lifeline. And in Britain today, the spirit of the Blitz isn’t found while crammed onto an underground station platform as the sirens sound, but instead found in Instagram Stories across the country as the nation pours out its support for our incredible NHS workers with an ocean of applause.

Yet there are constant reminders of the world beyond the screen. Netflix nudges us after a few hours of binge-watching to check that we’re still conscious, and tech companies have added ‘screen time’ features to remind us to step back and look up at the world around us. A digital lockdown, it seems, regularly taunts us of what we’re missing.

We don’t yet know what world we will find ourselves in post-coronavirus. Social media might suggest that we’ll be a more caring and considerate society, and I certainly hope that’s true. But I also hope that we’ll be more digitally aware, learning to switch off more and appreciate IRL contact. I, for one, will be making a meaningful effort to engage with the world around me and not get distracted by a vibrating pocket. Phones off everyone, the quiz is starting!

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for our website.

10 considerations for this decade

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector

Last week, I caught-up with Andrew Marshall, vice-chairman of Cognito – a City-based consultancy, which took a chance and gave me my first (paid) PR job over 10 years ago. As I approached their offices I was greeted by one Charlie Morrow, who, in turn, was my first ever hire. Turns out I’m pretty good at spotting talent! It’s great to see them doing so well.

Over coffees, Andrew and I exchanged a couple of stories and ideas. He is entirely to blame for me writing this blog about 10 PR things to consider in 2020 and beyond. I don’t intend for this to be an exhaustive list, rather a download on what’s front of mind. I’m sure other Conservatives in Communications will have their views. So, here goes – in no order:

1. Purposeful communications

What is the point in what you’re saying? We should ask that every time. People receive many communications – too many in fact – so relevance is key to influence.

2. Data-driven

There is an abundance of data out there and PR professionals should tap it to create hyper-focused campaigns that reach specifically targeted audiences. 

3. Digital-savvy

It’s 2020. Get with the programme. If your PR person or agency doesn’t ‘get’ social media, switch them. In addition, social media should be in the mix not an afterthought. 

4. Authentic voice

With the rise of populist politics and digital – think Trump, Boris and Salvini etc. – people expect to hear from others – not firms – about what they’re thinking and in real-time. Try it with your senior executives.

5. Human emotion

With technology playing a bigger role, we must be mindful of retaining that ‘human element’ in all communications.

6. Story telling

Like social media, if your communications people can’t string a sentence together then don’t hire them; they’ll only disappoint you in the long run. 

7. Audio-visual

Where investment should be made is in training communications people to use more audiovisual, including photos or videos, as these are just if not more powerful than the written word.

8. Specialist skills

Those who demonstrate a deep understanding of their clients’ requirements will succeed. For me, it must be boutique firm over big agency every time.

9. Team collaboration

Integrated marketing and communications are essential to deliver results for your stakeholders. It’s bonkers it’s taken this long for some to realise.

10. Top table

PR, like public affairs, is integral to the bottom line. It warrants a seat – and a separate one – at the top table e.g. CMO or Director of Communications.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for our website.

Language matters – get Brexit done and dusted

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector.

For some sections of society, politicians and journalists are among the least trusted professions. While my experiences are largely positive, I understand that frustration. I believe that the UK’s decision to leave the EU presents both with the ideal opportunity to repair that trust by delivering and reporting on the popular point of view.

There are exceptions to every rule and US president Donald J. Trump, UK prime minister Boris Johnson and Italian hopeful Matteo Salvini are them. They understand that the populist and what they see as patriotic PoV demands that politicians place stronger emphasis on national security as well as unique culture and identity, including their respective countries’ Christian heritage. By putting America first, returning sovereignty – by delivering on Brexit, and having sought to control immigration from the Mediterranean Sea – Trump, Johnson and Salvini are, and were, seeking to deliver on the ‘will of the people’. 

I highlight Salvini here (despite his very recent and perhaps temporary exit from Government) as I learned more about him while touring Tuscany and Umbria earlier this year. Yes, to want to move forward – beyond our relationship with the EU – doesn’t equate to being anti-European. I am in no doubt that Brits will continue to holiday, live and work in Europe long after October 31st.

These politicians are increasingly leveraging rallies, social media and alternative channels to push out messages and communicate with their electorates. They’re not doing this to simply keep-up with the changing times but because people are losing faith in the mainstream media.

There have been several occasions where the accuracy and impartiality of some reporting has been called into question such as the coverage of the recent Tory leadership contest and this week’s debate in the House of Commons chamber. I very much support press freedom but would encourage journalists to be extra prudent. As Alastair Stewart tweeted: ‘It becomes increasingly difficult for the public to get their heads around what is happening in our politics if supposedly independent TV reporters keep giving us their views rather than the facts.’ Andrew Marr responded with: ‘Analysis fine, hard questions essential, but our views? Not wanted on voyage.’ I agree with both. In short, the momentum wasn’t behind Rory Stewart, and the loony left, including Labour’s John McDonnell, have said much worse.

Looking ahead, perhaps a general election will present another opportunity for both journalists and politicians alike to fix this disconnect and yes, move forward. Let’s get Brexit done and dusted – instead of further debate and delay – and take the fight to Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for Politicalite (September 29, 2019). It was syndicated on BrexitCentral (September 29, 2019).