Posted by: bluesyemre | July 8, 2020

Communications Strategies have shifted during #Pandemic but often don’t address Racial Equity (Opinion)


As we contend with two seismically important events — the Covid -19 pandemic and the uprisings over police brutality and systemic racism — foundations and nonprofits need to work harder than ever to build trust in their programs and policies. To do that, they need clear, thoughtful, and inclusive communications strategies.

In April, suspecting the pandemic would set in motion significant and lasting changes in communications in the philanthropic world, the Communications Network and Atlantic 57 surveyed 275 communications leaders, CEOs, and board members at nonprofits and foundations about the changes they were seeing in their organizations.

While we couldn’t have predicted it, this research also offered a unique window into the perspectives of communications leaders on the eve of George Floyd’s murder. We found that race was already very much on people’s minds, with 67 percent of respondents reporting they expected to see profound narrative shifts on racial equity as a result of the pandemic.

The survey revealed three key findings about communications at foundations and nonprofits during the pandemic:

Communications leaders are playing a critical role in organizing an effective response. From the earliest days of the pandemic, many communications leaders have found themselves juggling expanded responsibilities. Most survey respondents (69 percent) reported their organizations formed an internal working group focused on the Covid-19 crisis, typically consisting of senior leaders, including communications heads. Three-quarters of survey respondents said their teams were involved in developing and distributing internal communications about Covid-19.

Increasingly, external messaging and statements from foundations and nonprofits are led by CEOs serving as the communicators-in-chief. Based on responses to our survey, CEO communications take the form of virtual town halls, op-eds, video addresses, or internal communications sent out by the chief executive in tandem with communications staff. Our research suggests that communications leaders who step up and lean into their central roles during this moment of transformation will have the greatest impact and a seat at the strategy table going forward. As protests and demonstrations continue, it is clear that silence is not an option and that transparency and accountability are imperative.

Storytelling is not adequately addressing racial or gender equity. Approximately two weeks before George Floyd’s murder, 67 percent of respondents reported they saw an opportunity to reshape the narrative on racial equity in America following the pandemic, but only 19 percent had already added a racial-equity focus to their storytelling approach. The data suggests few organizations are engaged in the storytelling that may be needed most right now. Only 43 percent say they are actively listening to and seeking input from the people they serve when shaping their storytelling. And just 2 percent were looking at gender equity in their work.

Not surprisingly, 81 percent of respondents reported reframing their organizations’ stories to include Covid-19-related themes, experiences, or insights. Most respondents saw an opportunity to inject new momentum into discussing the issues that feel most salient right now, including public health (80 percent), racial equity (67 percent), economic opportunity (67 percent), social justice (63 percent), and the role of government (54 percent).

Communications goals have shifted sharply. One in five communications leaders say their goals and priorities completely changed when Covid-19 hit, and another 62 percent report their communications work shifted at least somewhat. For instance, many said the pandemic has led to a greater focus on communicating the economic and health disparities exposed by Covid-19. More than 50 percent have canceled or paused campaigns, as well as changed their messages and tone. In light of the racial uprisings, it’s likely this recalibration is accelerating.

What’s Next?

During the current twin crises, the most agile foundations and nonprofits have made communications a priority, fostering cultures of communications. Here’s how to keep it going:

  • Actively listen to the partners and people you serve. Our survey suggests that far too many organizations (57 percent) failed this test during the earliest days of the pandemic. This was a surprise, perhaps attributable to the initial haze and tumult of the health crisis. But the fact remains that communications begins with listening, which requires connecting with those who are working directly with people suffering most from systemic health and economic disparities.
  • Stay flexible. This goes against the basic tendencies of many foundations and some nonprofits accustomed to a slower bureaucratic process. The pandemic has shown that these organizations can be nimble when they need to be. Fully 60 percent of those whose priorities have shifted say that the stories they tell about their work have changed because of the pandemic. But as this crisis continues and the country responds to growing demands for racial equity, these organizations will need to guard against falling back on old patterns.
  • Be aware of tone. Leading and communicating with humanity and empathy is essential — now and in the years of recovery and healing to come. Our survey shows signs of progress in this area. More than half (53 percent) of respondents whose priorities have shifted because of Covid-19 say the tone of their communications has also changed, with 68 percent saying they are striving for a more empathetic tone and 52 percent for a more encouraging tone.

Our survey revealed that many positive steps were taken at the onset of the pandemic, and these carried through in recent responses to racial injustice, including the formation of collaborative teams responsible for nimble communications responses and a greater emphasis on transparent and empathetic communication.

The challenge ahead for foundations and nonprofits is how to evolve from old leader-driven communications models to more open and participatory approaches focused on listening and learning from those on the ground fighting for change. One thing is clear: Our networked, information-driven world demands that nonprofits and foundations communicate — and communicate well. Communications is no longer an “adjunct” to the work we do. Increasingly, it is the work.

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