Communication Theory In A Crisis Like Coronavirus – with Alex Packham, ContentCal

25th June 2020 No comments

Note about COVID-19

This article talks about the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in a global lockdown in 2020. Please bear in mind that attitudes have changed dramatically throughout the lockdown period, and the content below may not reflect current views or practices.

Back in May, we spoke with Alex Packham, Founder and CEO of ContentCal, for our podcast “Are We Rolling?” In this excerpt, Alex talks about how businesses and organisations have communicated in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis. For example, Alex shared how communication theory has shaped the UK Government’s messaging.

He also explained why the plethora of coronavirus updates from businesses were necessary, even if a little overwhelming for recipients. (Similarly to how companies communicated about GDPR in 2018.) He also spoke about handling these issues sensitively, in a timely fashion, and without jumping on a bandwagon or capitalising on a crisis. It’s well worth watching.

Listen to the full interview

This interview was recorded for our podcast “Are We Rolling?”  – you can listen to the full interview below.

You can subscribe for more content like this (in audio format) on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and wherever else you get your podcasts from.

About Alex

Alex is the Founder and CEO of ContentCal.

ContentCal is a marketing and social media management platform. Alex founded ContentCal in 2016, and has since raised over £2.5 million in venture capital for the business. Prior to ContentCal, Alex ran a social media marketing agency, ASTP, which had a revenue of over £1 million, and worked for Sky’s Now TV and Odeon running social media for these major brands. He’s also a Board Director for Prop Store and Kindred.

Alex also recently launched his own podcast titled “Audio Blog” which can be found on his website


The transcript for this video has been edited lightly for clarity in written form.


I’m thinking of your position as someone who’s in touch with what’s happening on social. Have you seen any particularly good responses on social, or people doing things that are working particularly well in the current situation?

Because it is a fine line. You don’t want to seem like you’re trying to cash in too heavily on a terrible situation. You don’t want to be there being like “Hey, we’re capitalising on on this pandemic.”

But equally you can’t just shut up and be like “Well, we’ve just shut down now, we don’t exist anymore.”


Yeah, I mean, communication theory on these points in crisis (but in normal times) is something I find very very interesting. So to tie a couple of bits together…

The current England – or even UK – phrase… There are three things that they say: “Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.”

The communication theory behind that is the reason why you hear it in every politician’s sentence, you hear it in every interview, and it’s on the TV over and over and over again.

When you actually run the modelling behind how to get a mass group of people to hear a message and take action, you model in that we’re going to announce that, and then you model in the amount of times you’re going to keep saying it over and over again, which people do in TV ad campaigns. Which is why you see the same ad run for a period of time.

You have to factor how much that message is going to get through, how much it’s going to be listened to, who actually cares, who acts on it, who doesn’t. For big campaigns like that, they run big numbers behind it. That campaign in particular has probably been more successful than they thought.

That campaign in particular has probably been more successful than they thought.

That’s one idea where I say “communication theory”. People often say “why do they say the same thing over and over again?”

I think to your point, people questioned “Why is a business owner or a business leader or a CEO…” or, like you said, “Why is a t-shirt making company… An airline… This that and the other… Why are they emailing me to say this is how we’re dealing with it? Why are they giving me updates?”

And actually, although a lot of people have that view, my view’s almost the opposite. Communication theory dictates that you need to be really clear with your audience about what you’re trying to get across, not what they necessarily want to hear. Like, what you as a business are trying to get across.

Communication theory dictates that you need to be really clear with your audience about what you’re trying to get across, not what they necessarily want to hear.

Whether it’s to create confidence in the business, whether it’s to communicate an offer… Whatever it may be, that’s your job as the business. It’s to communicate clearly, repetitively, until you believe that the message has been consumed. Then you then move on to the next one.

And so, of course, when you get your sixtieth newsletter from the CEO of the X Y & Z company about coronavirus, you’re like “oh my god, why is everyone doing it?”

But each of these businesses are kind of going by the book. You have to put your message out there and you have to solidify your company’s view. And it’s unfortunate in this situation (for many reasons) that all companies did it within the same two-week period. But they’re just following what I would call a best practice guide. Because, like you said, what you can’t afford is to be seen as jumping on the bandwagon.

But I think those versions of those messages were reminding people that the business still exists. They’re trying to create the feeling of confidence. If you want to still book a holiday, buy a phone, whatever the message was… like, you can still do it. So there is a business angle to it.

A lot of them were done quite well, in my opinion – although it was a lot in a small space of time, which is why everyone’s like “I’ve had enough.” Which is fair enough because we’d all had enough of coronavirus from business, TV, media and the general media consumption. So I get that.

I was a big fan actually of people doing it and reinforcing their positive message.

Once people realised that they were getting too many, the companies that did it too late… I think you can miss the boat sometimes. And actually, if someone sent me one of them now I would be like “Well hello, this is now May, we’re too late.”

So I think about it from that perspective.

I think you can miss the boat sometimes. And actually, if someone sent me one of them now I would be like “Well hello, this is now May, we’re too late.”

I think the sensitivity thing – Agreed. Once this all kicked off – and again in a crisis…

ContentCal is actually a good example. We have a “pause all content” button. We have the ability for you to pause everything. It’s because of these crisis experiences. You do not want an automated Tweet going out with a “10% off”, or a happy, funny video or whatever.

Pausing (like you said and what you’ve done) is another best practice. And I would say the majority of businesses we saw did that. Then they slowly eased in their messaging, but off the back of that. So I don’t think I can pick out one or two that I would call out really good examples. I think the reason for that is because – from a brand perspective – there isn’t much to play on here. Like, this is a very serious situation. And – like you say – even if you had the opportunity to benefit from it, you’ve got to do it tastefully so that you don’t attach yourself to the world situation.

I think that’s an interesting dynamic.

I don’t know whether it’s the same for you but Facebook Ads have become a lot more affordable in this period.

I’ve bought a lot of stuff recently for my flat, for example, which I needed to furnish anyway. I’m getting ads for stuff I’m actually finding quite useful. And actually, some of the stuff has got offers attached to it. So I’m happy to buy that and I’m happy to have that in my feed. (That’s the transaction element of that deal. I use Facebook for free and I get those ads, so that works.)

One thing which is really unfortunate but was done very well on social media recently – I think it was today – was the Airbnb announcement from the CEO about the amount of people they’re unfortunately having to let go. It was an amazing approach from him on Twitter.

Plus the announcement he’s done – in terms of basically explaining in a very human way, why he’s done what he’s done, and why he’s had to do it, and how the business has shifted because of the coronavirus – very much because of the coronavirus. Their business has gone. I think it says they’re gonna do less than half their revenue they did in 2019.

For a company of that size, that’s a big, big issue and a big thing. So if you see that piece of communication, it’s a work of art in in how to communicate on a corporate basis in a crisis that’s impacting your entire business – in their case, travel.

So that’s a really good example if you want to go and see how to deal with a very, very tough situation.

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