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Hearing from the sector: audience engagement during and beyond the pandemic

How are charity communicators engaging audiences during the pandemic, and what will we need to do next?

I was one of 450+ matchbox-size faces participating from home in CharityComms’ first Zoom conference: Engagement strategies for charities in a Coronavirus dominated world and beyond.  The live sessions – two panel discussions plus breakouts – provided lots to think about, as speakers and participants shared their current tactics and thoughts about the future (props to Collette Philip for the virtual moderation).

Here are my takeaways and reflections, arranged under five themes: audiences, narrative, brand, content and leadership. For each I’ve outlined what communicators should be doing right now, and how to get ready for what’s next.



Right now: get closer to your audiences

It’s easy for people to link certain charities and causes directly with the pandemic. Hence the big increase in support for NHS charities. For the rest of us, the task is to keep talking to our audiences – the ones who already get why our particular cause matters, and who care about how coronavirus is impacting on our mission. All live session speakers talked about the importance of being there for your warmest audiences, and showing you’re concerned about the same things they are: the impacts of the pandemic on your beneficiaries, and on your ability to deliver on their behalf. Talk about what you’re doing, and (if appropriate), how they can help.

Get ready: to know how they’re changing

We’ve all had a wake-up call about the fragility of the systems we take for granted, and time to reflect on what matters most. The way we think about causes, and prioritise between them, is likely to change as we move away from the immediate crisis to a new normal. The only way to know how changes in attitudes are impacting on support for your cause is to listen to your audiences: this isn’t the time to steer away from audience research.



Right now: go behind the headlines

It feels like we’re drowning in pandemic news and information. So how do you ensure your content isn’t just adding to ‘infobesity’? Erika Murigi from VODG (Voluntary Organisations Disability Group) talked about the importance of rebalancing – viewing the main communications themes relating to the pandemic through the lens of the people and causes we’re here to support. Gather individual experiences – positive and negative – from within your communities and use these stories to fill the inevitable gaps in generic news narratives. As Athar Abidi from British Heart Foundation put it: “If it’s timely, relevant and targeted, it’s not noise.”

Get ready: to find a new proposition

As Joe Barrell from Eden Stanley reminded participants, the charity sector went into this crisis without a successful narrative about our relevance to society. Community responses to the pandemic, however, only emphasise the vital contribution of those willing to give  time, money, compassion and expertise, outside of commercial or governmental structures, particularly at local level. Joe says the sector needs to assert its role in the post-pandemic phase – and that’s also true for individual charities. Fortunately, the Edelman Trust Barometer suggests public trust in charities has risen substantially over the pandemic period.



Right now: live your values

Which of your values matter most right now? If you’re supposed to be about compassion and collaboration (these are practically universal sector values, after all), then prove it. Make sure the way you communicate says something about the kind of organisation you are. That way, you’re providing the reassurance people need to continue trusting you during anxious times.

Living your values might mean dialling down some aspects of your brand, and being willing to communicate in concert with others. Javed Thomas from The Collaboratory gave the example of mental health charities Mind and Samaritans joining up to issue a set of key messages about employee mental health, rather than each putting out their own advice. Meanwhile, Kate Nightingale from Crisis explained how her charity is now funding community organisations that can deliver on the ground support, living up to its value of interconnectedness.

Get ready: to suggest new possibilities

Kate from Crisis also speculated about whether the pandemic can spark a wider conversation about the kind of society we want to have in the future. The current lockdown is an example of the type of radical society-wide action that would have sounded impossible just a few months ago, but is now our daily reality. If your charity exists to make change happen (and if it doesn’t, then what are you for?), then the sweeping away of old certainties may create the psychological space for a more ambitious story about the world you want to see – and the role you’ll play in bringing it about.



Right now: keep it simple

We heard a lot from communications and digital teams who have paused planned social marketing campaigns and strategic issue-building, turning instead to a more tactical and responsive approach, often focused on practical services and support-related content. Athar shared how the British Heart Foundation had pivoted in the first days of the crisis to a ‘patient first’ approach to social media content, moving away from fundraising and going behind the headlines to provide info tailored to its beneficiaries.

With so many coronavirus myths and fake news doing the rounds, trust really matters. One health charity has temporarily reverted to a much more centralised content operation, to ensure everything it publishes is accurate and credible.

Get ready: to lose the gloss

We’ve all got used to more casual, stripped-back ways of getting our message out. This is as true for big-spend media, like TV advertising, as it is for our internal newsletters. I’m interested to see how far this more home-spun, less polished approach survives once we’re in the new normal. Will slick and glossy creative just look odd, and even off-putting? If that’s the case, there will be benefits beyond just the budget, such as easier integration between content formats, and more agile content production and sign-off processes.



Right now: support your team

Live session speakers in senior in-house roles discussed the challenges of leading and supporting teams through these challenging times. Judging from the parallel chatbox discussion, this was a theme that really resonated – the pressures and stresses of working remotely, at a time of crisis, sometimes with children and other family members around, is clearly taking a toll. As Shree Rajani from Guys’ and St Thomas’ Charity reminded us: “No one is working at 100% right now.” Compassionate and empathetic leadership is all that matters, and there were lots of ideas on ways to provide this – from informal virtual hangouts to opportunities for colleagues to share what they’re learning and creating outside of work.

Get ready: to face what’s next

Even before coronavirus, our sector faced some pretty big challenges, as Joe Barrell reminded us: from new generations of supporters with different ideas about how they want to engage with causes, to a competing commercial sector placing purpose front and centre of its brands. These challenges will be felt more strongly as we emerge from the pandemic, with fewer resources and a greater need for our services and programmes. Marketing and communications will be more important than ever – and the sector will need leaders at all levels who can step up to these challenges. The good news is that once you’ve led a team through a pandemic, you’ll probably have the leadership muscles to deal with anything.