Balancing Your Communications Approach During COVID-19

COVID-19 has changed how we communicate. Face-to-face conversations are restricted. Conferences and annual meetings have moved to virtual spaces. Coaches and athletes are struggling to stay connected with each other.

In this uncertainty, different approaches have emerged that attempt to balance progressive attitudes to communication with the safety and privacy of individuals and minors. These approaches evolve as we try to determine leading practices to communicate under COVID-19.

We have noticed sport and non-sport organizations attempting to balance different (and often competing) factors in their approach to communicating under COVID-19. Here are some examples of current approaches (current as of the date of publication of this post):

  • Ontario’s Minister of Education recently tweeted a screen capture of a Zoom meeting that he held with student trustees from across the province. The screen capture shows each high school student alone at their computer identified on video by their full name.
  • Each school board across the country is responsible for developing their own approach to ‘distance learning’ or ‘remote learning’. In some school boards, teachers are given the option to use their “professional judgement” for how they will connect with students.
  • The Ontario College of Teachers published a list of guidelines for video conferencing that are intended to inform teachers’ professional judgement in this space.

Some of the questions to consider when looking at these examples include:

  • Should the Minister be using the Zoom platform, which has had issues with privacy and security? Should the students be alone? Did parents approve of the posting of the screen capture that identified students by name?
  • Have school boards considered the possible risks of one-on-one teacher-student interactions? Should video sessions be recorded? Is ‘professional judgement’ too ambiguous?
  • Should coaches be held to the same standards of ‘professional judgement’ as certified teachers? In what ways would these guidelines be relaxed or enhanced for the coach-athlete context?

We want this blogpost to help sport organizations expand their considerations of the factors brought about by COVID-19. We are aware that some sport organizations have begun to implement or recommend their own approach – and we also hope that this blogpost will add to their considerations.  After all, we don’t have ‘leading practices’ yet – we are still practicing.

YOUR CURRENT APPROACH

Your organization’s current approach to communication may not necessarily be described in a ‘Communication Policy’. Instead, it could be pieces of conduct standards or guidelines that exist in various policies or procedures. Organizations should review the policies to see if they address communication in the current circumstances. Do your policies address one-on-one electronic interactions? Video conferences? Online training? Social media communication?

A gap in your approach does not mean that your organization has failed. It just means that a circumstance has developed that calls for a revision or update of your policies – and this is commonplace. Policies should be regularly reviewed and updated and stakeholders should always be alerted when there are changes.

Your approach must be reasonable and easy to understand. A restrictive or incomprehensible policy (or even guidelines) may confuse your members, drive away coaches and athletes, and cause conflict in your organization’s operations. People will look for loopholes if the policy has not considered all the possible factors or if it appears to be unreasonable.

FACTORS

When developing an approach to communication an organization might consider factors like the power dynamic between athletes and coaches, the safety of minor athletes, the organization’s capacity for enforcement of a policy, and the values of the organization. These existing factors should be balanced with the new factors brought about by the COVID-19 situation.

Here is an incomplete list of new communication factors related to COVID-19:

  • Technological capability
  • Communication medium preferences
  • Location of camera
  • Loss of in-person instruction
  • Participant conduct on video stream
  • Reduced coaching efficacy
  • Decrease in number of coach-participant interactions
  • Permission from parent/guardian for electronic interactions
  • Sanction status of instruction/training
  • Increase in participant anxiety (unrelated to sport)
  • Videos can be recorded and text-based interacted can be saved (without permission)
  • Communication software can be hacked by outside groups

Importantly, approaches to communication will not all be the same. Each sport organization will have different sport-specific and context-specific factors that a general ‘template’ policy will not properly address. Sport organizations will need to consider all the factors – general and specific – that must be balanced when developing a new or updated approach to communication.

SUGGESTED APPROACH

Based on our years of experience working in this space, we are sharing the following guidelines for sport organizations looking to communicate responsibly under COVID-19. Note that these suggestions would not be applicable to some situations.

General:

  • When communicating with minor athletes, parents/guardians should be aware that some communication may take place in settings that are not face-to-face. Parents/guardians should be allowed to prohibit this type of conversation with their minor athlete.
  • All communication with minor athletes should be ‘open and observable’. This takes different forms depending on the medium. Other people should be able to see the communication (either because it was recorded or documented and/or because other people were present/copied).
  • All communication that is not face-to-face should be focused primarily (but not necessarily exclusively) on impersonal topics. Sport-related topics such as competition updates, skill discussions, training notes, etc. Communication on personal topics should be limited and moved to a face-to-face interaction (when possible) in an open and observable environment.
  • All individuals must adhere to the organization’s code of conduct.

Video Conference:

  • Should be optional because not everyone has this capability or wants to be on video.
  • If there is any instruction, adult participants should sign a waiver and minor participants should have their parent/guardian sign an assumption of risk form (see LJ Bartle’s post re: Safe Sport during COVID-19).
  • Research the security and privacy status of different software platforms. Some platforms may not be secure enough or appropriate for your sport organization.
  • A person in authority (such as a coach) should not be in a video conference one-on-one with a minor athlete unless other means to mitigate potential risks have been applied (e.g., the video conference is recorded and sent to a parent/guardian, or the parent/guardian is present or within earshot during the conference, or a specified number of minor athletes are present together, etc.).
  • Just like with face-to-face interactions, coaches should have a ‘practice plan’ or a ‘meeting agenda’ that is provided in advance to athletes (and parents/guardians, if applicable).

Electronic Communication Media:

  • Organizations must accept that communication via electronic media (such as texting, video conferencing and emailing) will increase under COVID-19 and coaches and athletes will want to connect and attempt to maintain the coach-athlete relationship in this space.
  • Individuals must remember that communication in this space is less effective than face-to-face communication because of a reduction in communication cues. This reduction increases certain risks – such as ambiguity, blurring of boundaries and professional relationships, and opportunities for mis-communication.
  • Limit frequency of communication – and set a time period when communication in these media would be inappropriate (e.g., 7am to 10pm) depending on the age of participants.

Social Media:

  • Individuals should have a strategy for their communication via social media (such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat). Each person’s strategy will be different based on their age and role.
  • See our post from 2010 re: Social Media Strategy for Coaches.
  • Consider being open to communication from others on a social medium (from young people especially, since social media is often their communication media of choice) but ensure all communication in this space is mitigated by safety precautions for both coaches and athletes.
  • Avoid extended interactions in this space – use a less social medium.

The above suggestions are not legal advice. Organizations will (and should) create their own approaches based on what they believe to be a reasonable balancing of sport-specific and organization-specific factors. We can help! KRL@sportlaw.ca

Please also contact me if your organization has questions about the above suggestions. Guidelines and recommendations in this space are always best accompanied by a training component (usually a face-to-face presentation!) so that certain scenarios and approaches to sport-specific contexts can be discussed in more detail.

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