There’s no stopping comms – going online with Communications Learning Week 2022

The first virtual Communications Learning Week was a big success – but not without its challenges. Rosalind Goodrich shares her lessons for future editions.

Rosalind Goodrich's picture
Insight by 
Rosalind Goodrich
Rosalind Goodrich is head of research communications at IIED
18 March 2022
Screenshot of a videocall with 21 people waving at the camera

Group photo of the first virtual Communications Learning Week (Photo: IIED)

The first year of the pandemic scuppered our annual Communications Learning Week. But as the disruption of COVID-19 continued into another year, were we going to give up our plans a second time? Certainly not!

At the beginning of this month we held IIED Communications Learning Week 2022 and took it virtual for the first time.

True, there has been a gap of getting on for three years. But during that time we built our knowledge and skills in running digital events, all put to good use in the five days’ worth of sessions.

We were determined to run the week and I’m so glad we did – the value of hearing and learning from other comms people’s experiences just cannot be overstated.

Going from in-person to online

But how did we go from a four-day in-person event with evening social activities to five days of remote sessions, each day lasting 2.5 hours? The programme’s existing structure was our starting point. The next step was to adapt it – inevitably cutting things out and looking for ways to make the sessions work online.

Then a key decision: would we strive to keep the distinct ‘mutual learning’ nature of Comms Learning Week where we are joined by around 12-15 participants? Or take advantage of this new digital format and open up the week to much bigger numbers and deliver a series of online training sessions?

The team decision was unanimous: the week must have at its heart a sense of collaboration, community and learning from each other.

And so it went on, with as always, important lessons gleaned for next time:

You can never start planning too soon

I remember mentioning to a research colleague in October that we were starting to think about the week. He was staggered that we had already begun to plan – but our forward thinking paid off. Just working out how to play online snakes and ladders – how to move the counter, exploring apps for interactive dice rolling – took a lot of thinking through and several rehearsals.  

Accessible online events mean everyone must have the right tech  

This was vital and three of us liaised with participants to assess what they needed to take part fully with minimal disruption, and supported them to buy new equipment and data packages.  

In the week itself, heavy rain meant some people’s connection wasn’t brilliant, but at least we’d done all we could.  

Time zones matter  

We had people from five time zones. We tried to run the session at times that would work for everyone across the group but it still meant that for one person their session began at the end of her working day (and she had a seven-month-old baby to look after).  

Any other mix of time zones and it might not have worked – it was a question of balancing practicality with the value of learning from as many contexts as possible. 

Can you use the same approach online as in person? 

It may be an obvious point − but no, you can’t! The opportunities for spontaneous interactions just aren’t there and it’s hard to replicate them virtually.  

The Zoom chat was good for information sharing and banter, and Google Jamboards for stakeholder mapping, sharing thoughts and evaluation comments. We experimented with minute-long break-out groups to share quick reflections with our virtual neighbours – but it didn’t really work.  

Interactive audience personas exercise done with a Google Jamboard

Making sure online events run smoothly also takes meticulous planning 

A team of four worked to a tech script put together for each day (including links, text information to put in the chat, breakout group lists, timings and so on). I’ve never planned to that level of detail before! 

Building up a buzz 

We’d had an introductory meeting three weeks before and met each other  ‘speed dating’ style but we should have repeated it on the first day to get the group warmed up – we noticed many participants were quiet and seemed hesitant to share ideas or reflections.  

Made with Padlet

Over the week, trust and familiarity grew but it might not have done if we hadn’t reworked the agenda to give more time for talking to each other, and less time for presentations, which leads to the final lesson… 

Be ready to change things  

We tried to pack too much of the in-person programme into the online equivalent and at the end of day two we realised it wasn’t quite working. We responded quickly to make programme adjustments and from the third day cut things back and built in more time for working together.  

The sessions we removed we are running separately in a few weeks’ time. Even so, the main comment on the ‘things that could work better’ evaluation board was ‘more time!’ 

Good music, good friends 

All that said, for me it was a brilliant week – so good to hear from comms colleagues, experts in digital accessibility, using social media, media, advocacy, film-making and making communications work for remote communities where print, text, or face-to-face is the only option (reminding us of the stats that show that millions of people still have no access to the internet).  

And who could have thought that a sign of how well things were going would be the music requests for our playlist? By the end of the week, all the old favourites were upping the energy levels in the break and they played us out on the last day as we waved goodbye to new-found friends.