Living within COVID-19: How media and PR in Southeast Asia have adapted their roles during the crisis

By Sudha Raman and Nuraaina Asri.

What started with a miniscule novel coronavirus at the tail end of last year has quickly grown into an unprecedented disaster on a global scale within a matter of months. As the situation changes daily, people all around the world have adapted to a new lifestyle – their new normal. How have media in Southeast Asia adapted to reporting during this pandemic and how can communications professionals play their part in this increasingly uncertain new landscape?

Telum Media organised its first webinar panel discussion about the COVID-19 pandemic for media and communication professionals in Southeast Asia.

Our panelists were Stéphane Delfour, the Bangkok Bureau Chief for AFP; Ibrahim Sani, Astro AWANI’s AVP and Lead Business Editor; Jaime Ho, Chief Editor at CNA Digital and Sara Pereira, Regional Technology Lead (APAC) for WE Communications.
The hour-long webinar moderated by Telum Media’s Regional Head for Southeast Asia, Haikel Fahim, was attended by 1,000 media and PR professionals.

The new normal
The pandemic has redefined the way we work, including that of the media. For Stéphane, this includes the current ‘working from home’ norm which undeniably poses organisational, logistical, human resource and editorial challenges for media organisations. For AFP, all its 700 journalists from 230 bureaus across the globe have switched their reporting beats to one single global story – COVID-19.

Jaime later added that the new normal should not be viewed as an entirely negative indicator. The media coverage at CNA has continued as close to normal as possible, especially since journalists have become conditioned to work from home for nearly two months now. “We might not be able to return to the recognised normalcy, but we will have to adapt in our operations,” he stated.

Businesses remain able to operate ‘as usual’ in most cases, but new approaches are having to be constantly found to reach and engage audiences. Ibrahim stressed that this is the time for businesses to spread the word to the public about the ‘new normal’ and how there is always a place for these kinds of stories.

New way of approaching stories
The coronavirus’ rapid spread has caused the editorial decision making process at media organisations to shrink down to hourly or minute-by-minute discussions. Yet not all stories in the media necessarily needed to be about the bleak and often horrific impact of the pandemic.

Jaime stressed to sense the mood on the ground and understanding the audience of the media. There are possibilities to change the narrative of negativity to a positive one.

Ibrahim described how the seriousness of the situation has brought about a sense of urgency – a pressing need to fight back the virus by finding ways to solve this problem collectively as a community. He affirmed that those situations end up as positive, meaningful stories that are currently essential.

Apart from the positive stories, Sara suggested an appetite among consumers for stories that are adjacent to the COVID-19 content. “The idea of story adjacency is really important for a media company that really does not have a play in the COVID-19 story and would like to cover something else,” she said.

During the webinar, panellists did not hesitate to mention stories that they felt could have received more attention. Sara flagged that journalists should acknowledge the pain this pandemic has inflicted and to focus more on reporting about progress towards vaccines, post-covid and other “good news” stories.

Subsequently, Jaime lamented that the narrative of COVID-19 patients recovering completely was underreported because interviewees were mostly anonymous, possibly due to the stigma the virus carried. In changing the mindset of the people and getting them to talk about the virus, Jaime says that the media plays an important role as it reports these stories compassionately and with empathy.

Media credibility
The question of media credibility has been a prolonged debate, but it has now become even more pertinent. While discussing this, Jaime took a firm stance that credibility should not be sacrificed in journalism. Though there are plenty of media platforms, he mentioned the surge of consumers that traditional media received as people wanted to get credible news. This was backed up by an online poll carried out during the webinar, which indicated that over a third (38%) of attendees sought their news from traditional media.

Stéphane took the opportunity to introduce one of AFP’s key recent initiatives – a fact-checking facility that helps to clean up massive disinformation such as hoax, rumors and visuals taken out of context. To date, AFP has debunked nearly 600 stories related to COVID-19. He added that the website received an astounding eight million views in March of this year compared to the 10 million views that it received throughout the whole of 2019.

Importance of communication
During any crisis, it is communication that acts as the lifeblood of a society under pressure, and in this case under lockdown. Sara said that it is imperative of brands to step up to first define and later showcase the narrative decided upon by the organisation. This means that brands should take a pause to assess the local situations before pitching ideas.

In addition to that, Sara also pointed out the significance of values, accuracy and transparency. She invited PR professionals to think about the information that they are providing media – about whether it is critical and helpful to consumers’ lives, whether the narrative will add to the negativity or if the information is accurate enough to counteract some misinformation. She also emphasised the need to be transparent in how information is communicated to the media.

Jaime and Sara spoke about how internal communications have become more important than ever and how people need to know information in the clearest possible way. “These things need to be prioritised as a piece of communication so that there is no misinformation,” explained Sara.

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