How to communicate in a crisis?
A field report from the WISTA communications team following a year of the coronavirus pandemic
How do humans react to danger? With fight, flight, or playing dead. When Germany was suddenly shut down on 14 March 2020 and the operating company of Adlershof Technology Park with it, which choice did the communications team make? A field report after one year of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lockdown! What now? When we suddenly found ourselves working from home, we, the communicatons team of WISTA Management GmbH, asked ourselves what would happen to Adlershof’s success story.
We hadn’t been befallen by war, a pyroclastic density current, or a tsunami but by a highly infectious virus. Without medication or vaccination, all we were left with was a feeling of unease. The virus forced us to reorganise our professional lives from the ground up in a very short time. Working from home and videoconferencing – a country used to working face-to-face was switching up at rapid speed. Everything was open to change. The speed at which we were capable of reorganising all this and learning new things was one of the more positive experiences that we can now look back upon a year later.
In March 2020, however, the silence was deafening. Our well-attuned online team – a substantial element of WISTA’s communication efforts – took the initiative. It created a dedicated website with information on the coronavirus situation as well as developing a B2B cooperation platform to organise relief. It was addressed at Berlin-based companies that sought to help each other out with manpower, equipment, materials, and know-how.
And what about press work? With everything coming to a standstill, the pleasant background noise of the public sphere also fell silent. It was clear to us from the get-go: We have to show presence, be available. Fleeing or playing dead were not among the available options.
But who was going to show interest in good numbers and forecasts from Adlershof? And could we even deliver those? We had to find out how the companies and institutes of the Technology Park were doing. One thing was particularly interesting here: Who was involved in fighting the virus? Our co-workers in marketing picked up their phones. After just a few days, we had identified over 30 companies and scientific institutes that were. Their activities ranged from donating masks, to testing, and developing vaccines.
With that impressive list in hand, we went public. We finally had a story to tell. Instead of bad news, we had good news to share. The media was grateful to receive them. Providing the classic media with reliable information was very important to us from the onset. While “a firework of misinformation was being lit up in the online parallel universe”, most people hadn’t forgotten “that there still was a here and now” and were returning to those classical media “in troves”, as Süddeutsche Zeitung put it so poignantly.
In April 2020, we were faced with another great challenge: The results of our 2019 annual survey had arrived; the numbers were outstanding as were the forecasts for 2020 – excellent conditions for our annual press conference. However: all the data had been collected before the lockdown. Were they basically worthless? Of course, we could have “gotten rid of them”, put on a worried face, and come up with gloomy scenarios instead. However, that wouldn’t have done our site any favours, nor us.
The annual press conference was cancelled; in any case, though, we wanted to put out an extensive press release, which should not only contain the good numbers but also share hope. In addition to looking at the fight against the coronavirus, we helped ourselves by looking at the history of the site: Adlershof emerged stronger from both the financial crisis (2008/2009) and from the solar crisis (2011). Countless companies had taken a severe hit as a result from the coronavirus pandemic. Overall, however, our Technology Park showed a considerable degree of sturdiness and resilience. This enabled us to stand in front of the cameras of RBB Television and say that “a diverse science and technology park like Adlershof thrives in moments of crisis, and that its companies and institutes can act flexibly and unleash the power of innovation very quickly. This, at least, makes us feel optimistic that the Technology Park as a whole will be able to overcome the current crisis.”
Naturally, this statement applied only to that given moment in time. Nothing has changed about that. Even during the third wave of the pandemic, every forecast remained subject to error. The media reaction then was positive throughout; our voice was being clearly heard and resonated in the public sphere.
The next step was to create a realistic image of the Technology Park in crisis. To us, it wasn’t about abstract figures but concrete examples. Who were the entrepreneurs that were prepared to speak on this in all openness? This would require a lot of effort on their part and take a great deal of care from us, the communicators. We knew from long-standing experience with the media that journalists certainly appreciate when you meet them with openness and honesty.
We had found a way of communicating, our way. We stayed true to it. We did so even when the climate of opinion changed in reputable national newspapers as well in the autumn of the pandemic. Since then, it has frequently been more about political grandstanding and attention-seeking than informing and educating based on facts. While the many “trumpeters in the coronavirus panic orchestra” (as Stephan Ruß-Mohl, a professor emeritus of publishing and media studies, put it) were and continue to be loud, they do not represent “the media” as a whole. For us, it was and is about a fact-based and self-critical dialogue with the media, which is highly appreciated by outlets like “Süddeutsche Zeitung” or “Frankfurter Zeitung”. In social media, too, we make sure that our good reputation stays exactly that, a reputable source. To us, they are not echo chambers for yelling at anybody who doesn’t share our opinion.
What became of our forecast from April 2020? By the end of the year, there were many indications that what we had predicted held true. One year after the first lockdown, at our annual (and digital) press conference on 23 March 2021, we were able to proclaim that Adlershof has made another significant growth step by generating an increase in turnover of 6.8 percent during a crisis.
By Peter Strunk, Cindy Böhme, Sylvia Nitschke for Adlershof Journal
Sandra Chabrier & Valeria Fribus
Fancy posters and snappy slogans against the virus? Impossible!
We had to put classic marketing tasks aside for the moment and support on-site research and addressing the press. We wanted to know from Adlershof-based companies how they were doing in the current situation and what they were doing to help tackle the pandemic. The results were surprising and encouraging. Many in the media then reported on the incredible resilience our Technology Park was displaying amidst the coronavirus crisis. The subsequent campaign “#Wissen schützt” on reusable face coverings made this even more visible.
People are watching the news again
There is a lot of discussion about the role of the media during the pandemic. It ranges from the media’s responsibility for creating a bad public sentiment to trust in the media itself. However, I have the feeling that the media were also responsible for upholding a sense of community during a time when there were no major events, concerts, or sports events, which would otherwise enable large numbers of people to have collective experiences. Instead, it was the daily news that people would evaluate with friends, pondering whether it was ok to visit the family or not. And they would analyse the statements that politicians were making in talk shows. Germany’s favourite police series, “Tatort”, used to be called “the nation’s bonfire” – I feel like the media as a whole has taken on this role in the past few months.
Premiere: The first Adlershof Journal that was created from home
The topics for the Mai-June 2020 issue on “Science communication” were agreed on, when suddenly all the events, including the “Long Night of the Sciences”, were being cancelled. It became immediately clear to me that we had to regroup. New idea: Let’s make an issue on working-from-home. The aim of that issue was to initiate a debate about new forms of working. Since the journal’s editorial team was working remotely, the entire issue was created from home, except for printing. We tried many new things, even changing the issue’s visual language. A lack of photos opened up a lot of room for illustrations.
Some authenticity was lost
The regional round of Jugend Forscht, the famous German young science competition that WISTA Management GmbH sponsors, was held as a digital-only event. Without any of the public exhibitions that are usually visited by hundreds of local school children. Only a few people, those coming together in their respective virtual spaces, could see how crazy the ideas really were that were behind certain projects and how committed the young people had been to honing their ideas. It’s hard to convey a sense of euphoria this way. The award ceremony also took place online. Without direct feedback, without the cheering families, and without hugging teenagers. The whole thing left us feeling exhausted and perplexed. However, being forced to rethink an event that has always been face-to-face also unleashed creativity and excitement. Consequently, I conceived the video series #RoleModelsAdlershof, in which Adlershof stakeholders talked about what drives them and how they deal with successes and difficulties.
Lockdown. I had to do something! So I picked up the phone and called a journalist. He asked me how I was. “I can’t really say exactly,” I said, “I’m working from home.” “Me too,” he replied. Journalists and spokespeople are not typically the best of friends. At this moment, however, it became clear to us: We had more in common than we thought. We were equally affected. Based on this realisation, public relations work and journalism both had a very different responsibility.
Anke Lerp, Nicole Thamm, Alexander Seiffert
Well-oiled team with an established digital workflow
We had a great advantage: we as a team were experienced with working remotely. Thanks to that, we could react quickly and put together a comprehensive package of information in a very short time. On a dedicated website, www.wista.de/corona, we provided up-to-date information on the situation in Adlershof and the other WISTA locations. The information ranged from recommendations on preventive measures and the status of the technical infrastructure, to news on business funding measures, aid packages, and the financial support offered by Berlin’s government. We distributed this wealth of information via all the WISTA channels as well as the dedicated Twitter account “WISTA_update”. We kept the site’s community and our customers up-to-date with a special coronavirus newsletter.