We live in a time of multiple, evolving crises. It’s different from other crises that we’ve faced in my career, says Rosemary Ostmann, President & CEO at RoseComm. Generally, when tragedy strikes, we scramble to understand what happened and then and we begin to recover.
The most important thing for communicators to do now is to listen to what’s going on around them and be responsive as the situation changes. With so much confusion and potential for misinformation, all brands have a role to play in educating their stakeholders and helping the public navigate through these challenging times. This is especially important for organizations in the health and education fields where she spends much of her time.
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About the Host:
Host: DOUG SIMON
Guest: ROSEMARY OSTMANN
DOUG SIMON: Rosemary, it’s a time as you said of really unprecedented challenges for organizations. Can you maybe start by top lining what some of those challenges that you see now and coming up in the near future?
ROSEMARY OSTMANN: I’ve been in the public relations business for nearly 30 years and I think what makes what we’re living through right now different from any other crisis that we’ve ever faced is that it’s an ongoing crisis and it’s not just one crisis it’s two. So in the past, when we dealt with a terrorist attack or a natural disaster something happened and then we needed to get the facts together begin to communicate and then really understand what the narrative would look like coming out of that crisis where that’s not the process that we’re following with this. It is an ongoing situation that’s changing. And the end the worst is probably still ahead of us.
DOUG SIMON: And I would think that because it’s this evolving crisis that with many layers from a communication standpoint that almost puts more emphasis on being able to be nimble and sort of have a strategy that you’re able to plot going ahead as these changes occur not knowing what they’ll be.
ROSEMARY OSTMANN: That’s right. I think that for public relations practitioners some of the fundamentals of what we do when it comes to words like authenticity or trust and honesty and two way conversation this is the way we’ve communicated since the beginning of our discipline and that’s really what’s working most effectively now because you do really have to listen to what is happening in the marketplace and to be responsive to that. So yes, it does require a lot of flexibility and being nimble and I think for the coming months probably 18 months we’ll still be living through this.
DOUG SIMON: And it’s also a different way of working that I think our PR industry has been pretty nimble and flexible to adjust to what some guidance you are there to keep sort of the work of your organization intact. And how does that also affect your client?
ROSEMARY OSTMANN: Going back to what I was saying about listening. I think that’s the key because the news cycle. The news cycle was already crazy before the pandemic hit. And before we were dealing with racial tension in this country and of course we have a chaotic election cycle coming up. So the confluence of these three factors and how that’s impacting how people are receiving information, the channels that they’re using to receive information, it does require a greater degree of really listening to all those various channels and understanding what the conversation is like and that you are being responsive to that conversation. I think now more than ever it’s important to not be self-serving in the context of what’s going on but to really think about how you and your organization can be helpful.
DOUG SIMON: And you mentioned the election it seems that on almost every issue there’s going to be 40 percent or 50 percent of the population that disagrees with you because there’s such a partisan divide. As a brand, how do you navigate that because it does seem like corporations/ organizations are being more out front on issues in some ways and they’ve been.
ROSEMARY OSTMANN: That’s true and we’ve had a lot of interesting conversations with our clients about this and I will say if there is a spectrum of how vocal they are being they’re all over the spectrum and a lot of that has to do with being true to your brand if you are a brand that has already spoken out about injustice you’re not found flatfooted in this situation, right, it is natural. I’ll use Ben and Jerry’s, they’re not a client, but I’ll use them as a great example of a brand that has been vocal about justice issues for years and so for them to come out and talk about George Floyd, to talk about the protests, to have a call to action to the president and to Congress is totally natural for their brands. For other brands that have never spoken out on these issues, they’re stumbling a little bit trying to figure out is it right for me to have a voice and if so and I would say for all brands it is right to have a voice now, silence is no longer an option. I agree with a lot of people have been saying that, I agree with that. But then trying to figure out what is that voice, what are we comfortable with, what is on brand. Because it’s really easy to make a misstep right now.
DOUG SIMON: You know two areas that have been a key part of public discussion: health care and education are also areas that your firm is well known for working with clients in that space. Can you maybe break it down one at a time? Start with health, and what are the challenges and opportunities with clients who already are in the health space?
ROSEMARY OSTMANN: One thing that’s interesting is just like when we were dealing with 9/11 and the wars that followed. I think most journalists ended up becoming war reporters and they all everyone was covering the war through the lens of their whatever they were covering before 9/11 happened. And I think the same thing is happening to a degree here with the pandemic that we all have a voice. And when I say we all I mean brands and organizations have a voice when it comes to playing a role in educating people about the pandemic and also in flattening the curve of the pandemic. So that is true for all of our clients, but especially for those in the health space that have a direct role and credibility is the most important thing because there’s so much confusion changing information. So, to not be too quick to share until you are 100 percent sure you have the accurate information and you have the right expertise to bring to the table.
DOUG SIMON: And that’s so spot on where you say to what we found when we serve survey broadcast producers that eighty seven percent of them said they were open to interviewing brand spokespeople about stories that related to COVID. And we sort of said internally like what story does it relate to it at this point. It’s so intertwined. Education is also a big area. Just you know, I know you have a family yourself and you’re navigating it both as a parent, as a communication expert. What are you seeing with some of your clients when there is such an uncertainty even about how school is going to be starting in weeks or a month?
ROSEMARY OSTMANN: So, the spring was really all about how do schools pivot to respond to what we thought was going to be short term remote learning. And I think you saw a lot of inspiring stories and that’s one point I want to really make in this conversation with you is that it is important to remain optimistic to not be pessimistic about what’s happening in the world because there are so many positive stories and reasons to feel hopeful and what we saw in the education space is a great example of that. We saw schools, we saw tech providers doing really responsive and interesting things and moving faster than anyone expected that they would be able to. So that was one narrative but now we’re shifting into what’s happening this fall. We’re talking a lot about the COVID-19 slide which is going to be far greater than any summer slide we’ve ever experienced. Looking at a public school in general as an institution as a critical institution in this country. And the disparities that exist in this nation and the privilege that some families have to take control of their child’s education because they have the resources to do it. So, the uncertainty is less of a burden on their families as opposed to the vast majority of people who don’t have those same resources and those same options. And what is the impact of all remote learning or being forced to go into school when it’s maybe not the best health decision for our family. So, it really as you said is a very complex time and it’s super important to understand all of those issues and to think about as a brand how you respond to that.
DOUG SIMON: And as a communications leader you’re definitely providing important guidance to your clients getting to your point on optimism. I think a great point is that the creativity in our industry has really shined through. And you’re a terrific example of that with the guidance you’re offering your clients and keeping your team together. So, thanks so much for taking part in this discussion. Really helpful, really interesting.
ROSEMARY OSTMANN: Well thank you for having me.