Stephanie Carter l Palladium - Mar 02 2022
COVID-19 and the ‘Great Communications Pivot’: Lessons from Asia Pacific

Source: Market Development Facility

As the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to evolve, so too has the role of the professional communicator. Over the past two years, the role of communication teams in reaching and engaging key audiences has never been more important, particularly with the prolific increase in hybrid ways of working, and the need for clarity amidst the chaos.

At a global scale, no matter the sector, communication teams have had to be agile and inclusive, ensuring messaging empathy and deploying the right channels at the right time – no easy feat.

Early pandemic lockdowns saw a dispersed group of Palladium’s communication specialists – all of whom work on Australian Government funded programs – come together to share in a community of best practice and traverse the new COVID-19 landscape. This community, who represent just one part of Palladium’s global work, had much to share on the role of communications during and after the pandemic, both for those working in development and beyond.

From Australia to Cambodia, Indonesia to the Pacific Islands, this cadre of communicators faced another challenge: as projects pivoted away from pre-pandemic methodologies and work plans, what value could communication teams provide?

Storytelling in an Evolving Landscape

Donor aid investments sit at the nexus of Australia’s public diplomacy efforts across the Indo-Pacific region and are responsible for not only delivering human development impact but promoting a powerful storytelling narrative.

The swift release of the Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s development policy ‘Partnerships for Recovery – Australia’s COVID-19 Development Response’ provided a blueprint for how development programs should be pivoting to tackle COVID-19, but also emphasised a shift in public diplomacy priorities. Those priorities were clear: health security, stability, and economic recovery. For many of Palladium’s programs, this had a direct impact on strategic messaging with stakeholders.

For the Business Partnerships Platform (BPP), the pandemic presented new opportunities for the communications team to highlight the role of women in business and economic recovery.

“We spoke to many women business leaders about how they were adapting to the evolving COVID-19 situation,” notes BPP Communications Manager Corinne Roberts. “We highlighted their work in our communications not only to demonstrate what businesses are doing to respond to COVID-19 but to counter gender stereotypes of women’s role in business.”

“Our communications described the business models, highlighted the projected impact, and profiled the inspiring individuals behind the partnerships,” Roberts concludes.

Communications for Social and Behavioural Change

In the early stages of the pandemic, most program communication teams reported the need to deliver urgent COVID-19 behavioural health messaging to key stakeholders – targeting local businesses, community members, and even internal team members. Using both offline and online channels, teams worked furiously to clarify and simplify messaging, package compelling communication products like flyers and videos, and translate into local languages as needed.

"As projects pivoted away from pre-pandemic methodologies and work plans, what value could communication teams provide?"

As time went on and the pandemic took its toll on economies and communities, programs like the Market Development Facility soon identified the need for a fresh approach. Communications Director Tharindri Rupesinghe explains how her team got creative to encourage social and behavioural change and save local business in Fiji.

“Building engaged and informed digital communities has been a key focus area for MDF as we looked at how communications would change with the pandemic,” says Rupesinghe. “It proved to be a useful tool in program implementation, particularly when working with digital influencers.”

“In Fiji, MDF worked with influencers on a campaign to drive support for MSMEs hit hard by the pandemic. Excitingly, the influencers were able to leverage their online communities to share key messages, but also convert that ‘influence’ into actual footfall and sales for the businesses,” she adds.

The Power of Digital

For programs working with dispersed communities, communication teams played a key role in leveraging and maximising digital platforms.

While education programs like Innovation for Indonesia’s School Children and Education Pathways to Peace worked to digitise learning materials and support remote teaching across Indonesia and the Philippines, programs like the Pacific Labour Facility (PLF) used digital platforms to foster community connection and deliver evolving program messages.

In the initial stages of the pandemic, the PLF needed to get critical information out quickly to Pacific and Timor-Leste workers in Australia about social distancing, hygiene, travel restrictions and visa implications, as many were unable to return home. With circumstances changing daily, and with PLF staff working remotely, Facebook was primarily used to deliver this information to workers and target specific locations where workers were based.

“To address the concerns from family members and communities in the Pacific, the PLF also produced a series of videos called ‘Postcards from Australia’,” explains Charlie Stevens, PLF’s Media and Content Adviser. “These were pitched at each labour sending country and featured interviews with workers about how they were faring in Australia and how they were being looked after during the pandemic. Personal faith is important for many Pacific islanders, and so we also held a series of online church services via Facebook to maintain morale and build a virtual support network.”

At a time in history where information can help shape – and even save – lives for the better, the communicator’s role in crafting compelling messaging, shaping narratives, leveraging digital channels, and reaching the right people at the right time, has never been more valuable.

As Australia’s development response shifts to a post-pandemic world, donor aid investments must continue to lean on, resource and support project communication teams – not just as an afterthought, but from design and inception. After all, the backbone of credible public diplomacy is powerful storytelling.

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