AB Thinks  →  13th July 2020

Leading from the front

Bea Buckley

What frontline comms could look like in a post-Covid world 

As news of Covid-19 hit, supermarkets saw their shelves empty like never before. And although I refused to insulate our house with bread and potatoes, I will admit that I did some heavy browsing in the Ocado tinned soup aisle.

But I soon realised I didn’t need to worry. The fundamental services that we all take for granted in this country – provided by frontline colleagues and key workers – never let us down.

Our NHS fought for our lives, supermarkets kept us fed, public transport kept running…The list goes on. When the world was on its knees, our key workers kept going.

To our frontline, I echo the words in this video – it’s always been you. Thank you.

Colleague comms has never been more in the spotlight. Now our world has drastically changed, how do we take our communications forward? We need to adapt too.

Here are my tips for comms in a post-Covid world:

Embrace a blurring of the lines
Scrap ‘internal communications’ and embrace ‘communications’ to different audiences. You may have seen big brands such as Barclays and Sainsbury’s featuring their colleagues in TV adverts, Royal Mail celebrating the inclusion of a frontline colleague in Vogue magazine, and businesses including AB, Post Office and Heathrow celebrating their own Covid-19 volunteers. Others have received less favourable coverage of their colleague strategies, demonstrating that employee issues are at the forefront of all our minds.

Going forward professionals should be adept at engaging a range of stakeholders. If your team is split into internal and external comms specialists, consider upskilling them, so all colleagues understand the opportunities and challenges for each audience group. It will be more efficient and will help you make the most of each opportunity.

Let your people sell your business 
Putting colleagues at the front of campaigns isn’t new as such. Take Network Rail, who have featured colleagues in campaigns for years. But it’s certainly become more prevalent during Coronavirus. From a colleague engagement point of view, having previously worked on PR campaigns like this one, which put frontline colleagues front and centre, I can really recommend it. Seeing your friends in positive media stories is always great for morale and shows how much you value your people. Key workers do a fantastic job of serving your customers every day – can’t they serve the media too?

CEOs – stop blogging, start vlogging 
Confession time again – I have rarely enjoyed reading a CEO’s blog. I find them forced and they can often make the CEO feel more distant, a strange result from something that is designed to bring your leader closer to your people.
Video calling on the other hand – now we’re talking. I’ve loved seeing people in their homes on Teams and Zoom calls over the past few weeks. It’s not because I’m nosy. It’s because I really love people and even a glimpse of a bookshelf or a picture on the wall makes me feel like I know that person a bit better than I did before.

Comms teams – focus on upskilling leaders and line managers 
By now our leaders have had plenty of opportunity to appear on screen themselves but, of course, it will come more naturally for some than others. For those who need a helping hand, do some media-style training with them, even if they’re not going to be speaking to media. Exercises like door-stepping – where C-suite execs have to answer questions unprepared, filming as they address an audience then watching it back and going through key messages – are just as useful for your internal audiences as they are for external. For line managers, some lunch and learn sessions helping them make the most of their technology could help.

Win-win scenarios 
Practice makes perfect, so once your leaders are trained give them as many opportunities as possible to speak to your frontline. Your frontline will appreciate seeing more of your leaders – and your leaders will benefit from hearing their views, too; face-to-face conversations will give your leadership team weight and depth to support employee survey results. In addition, your frontline colleagues are the closest to your customers so their ideas for how to make your business a success count. A director I worked with religiously kept a slot at every frontline training session, once a week on a Thursday. It was a great opportunity to discuss business performance, customer service levels and punctuality of service with those who made it all happen on the frontline.

A frontline seat in the board room
Avanti West Coast has just elected its first ever Employee Director. That’s right, Lizzie Power has been elected by her peers to step back from her role as Train Manager to work on strengthening relationships between employees and the board room. Coronavirus has ensured that our frontline colleagues have been elevated to hero status. Public appreciation of the work they do has never been higher. Brands are being judged by how they treat colleagues from the inside and out, with the real threat that consumers will vote with their feet for those businesses who have demonstrated positive values when their people have needed them most. I think having a frontline colleague in the board room is a great idea – and what better time to do it.

In my first role working in an operational business, I shadowed every frontline role. I sold train tickets in rush hour, I learned about dispatching trains and platform management, visited the depot and sat in the control room. Demonstrating that I valued those colleagues as equals boosted engagement, and I built up a solid network of contacts that stuck with me for the rest of my time there.

What better way of celebrating your own frontline by getting out there and doing a shift alongside them. You’ll get some good content from it and might even learn something – plus I can guarantee you’ll have fun.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you think post-Covid comms could look like? Find me on Twitter @beabuckley18 and share your thinking

Having spent 10 years travelling the world as a sports journalist, Bea landed at Heathrow over five years ago. At the airport Bea worked in the rail and aviation communications teams, and is now a freelance communications consultant.