We’ve interviewed 46 communication advisors in key businesses and municipalities in Norway and got an insight into how they worked through the Covid-19 pandemic. The research shows that far too many were unprepared for the enormous need for effective communication when the virus hit Norway.

This article was previously published in Aftenposten.

The pandemic led to an enormous demand for frequent, precise, and coordinated communication both in public and private sector. The traditional crisis plans didn’t always deliver as expected. Therefore, when the pandemic hit, most had to quickly go back to the drawing board. Firms had to improvise, learn quickly, and make important and large decisions without the proper preparations.

From the report we published on Møteplass Oslo, we summarize the four most important findings here.

The municipalities were prepared but underestimated the need for proper communication

Few businesses vi have talked to had a pandemic under their list of possible scenarios in their crisis communication plan. They had practiced and prepared for a crisis, but not for a pandemic which affected all sectors overnight. Their general crisis plans were still very useful to quickly establish a crisis team and emergency groups.

Many municipalities, on the other hand, stated that they were prepared for a pandemic within their organization. Some had even practiced how to handle a pandemic quite recently and felt prepared when the first cases of infection came to Norway. A selection of municipalities had already established their emergency teams in January, when the outbreak of Covid-19 was known outside of China. Still, many were taken aback by the need for communication plans and strategies. 

There are enormous differences regarding the size of Norwegian municipalities. The smallest, Utsira, has approximately 200 residents, whereas Oslo has almost 700,000. A consequence of this is that the difference in communication resources is vast from municipality to municipality. At the same time, the residents have similar expectations to the quality and frequency of the communication. Several small to mid-sized municipalities have experienced large amounts stress for the few people responsible for the administration of the dialogue with the citizens. 

The private sector had to focus more on internal communications

This pandemic hit everyone. External communication was therefore not as pressing, as everyone experienced mostly the same things at the same time. It was mostly following the recommendations from the government, as well as adapting to the obvious and expected efforts.  

The focus was internal, and the most demanding was finding the right point of balance within the messages. It was important to keep motivation up, whilst also being honest about the magnitude and seriousness of the situation. It was in this area their reputation could be weakened. How do you say enough, but not too much, or something you can’t back up? How do you cheer for and celebrate your employees when they walk the extra mile, while at the same time sending out warnings of redundancy, cutting costs, and communicating the projected marked developments?

The role of the CEO is important in all crises, and most of the people we interviewed said that their CEO was more visible internally than ever. The communication was frequent and visual, and supported the creation of needed trust and safety. 

Close cooperation with the media

All the municipalities we spoke to expressed that the media was understanding and constructive in the handling of the pandemic. They experienced that the media was cooperative regarding the spread of good and correct information to the residents. The local- and regional media was thus a crucial part of the communication work in the municipalities. 

Many local media used their webpages to stream press conferences from the municipalities and established a relationship to spread important news and information. Information regarding the virus was not placed behind a payment wall.

Norway is one of the countries that have the most newspapers per capita. There are still over 200 newspapers that are published frequently. The fact that local- and regional media has such a strong standing is valuable, not only for democracy and belonging, but also when the crisis hits.  

Everyone has experienced how important good tools are for internal and external communications

Most large enterprises have a wide range of channels for internal communication. E-mail, meetings, Workplace, Teams, Yammer, Intranetworks, SMS, letters, and informal dialogue by the water dispenser. Just to mention a few.

There are many places and channels in which people can communicate, yet it is often a little coincidental what people say where. When firms moved their employees from their desks into their homes, an enormous demand for communication tools and knowledge of how they were used increased drastically. Some developed new solutions almost overnight, and could therefore reach everyone at the same time with the same message. 

In the municipalities, web pages became the haven for all information that went out to citizens and other stakeholders. Municipalities that had a well-developed strategy for social media, benefited for their know-how during the pandemic. 

Both private and public sector have admitted that they haven’t been able to capitalize on available tools. One of the most important tasks coming this fall is to evaluate every part of their communications in order to increase their frequency and precision when communicating with important stakeholders. 

The people responsible for communication, both in the public and private sector, experience that the importance of communications has increased during the pandemic, and expect that communication gets a higher priority in the future. 

The only thing that is completely certain, is that the people responsible for communications, and their team, has been through a tough test during the pandemic, and made important experiences which should prepare them for a future crisis.