It is rather premature to pontificate on the lasting legacy of this planetary crisis. Will we embrace normality, when it finally arrives, with a more profound understanding of what really matters? How organisations might be permanently altered by this crisis is equally unclear but there are early signs the way we communicate at work could be dramatically changed for the better.
“Shareholders come last.” That was the response given by Mark Cuban, owner of the National Basketball Association (NBA), when asked for his message to American CEOs in the grip of this pandemic. “You need to take care of your employees and their families first. And if you’re a great company, your shareholders will understand and will expand their P/E out of respect, because they’re all dealing with the same circumstances.”
The Institute for Public Relations recently asked 300 communication executives and senior leaders how their organisations and communication functions are responding to COVID-19. The prioritisation of employee communications was clear. More than 80 per cent said this was a “high” or “essential” priority, compared to 66 per cent who were prioritising customer communication and 35 per cent suppliers.
The public wants to know how organisations are treating their people during this crisis – what health and safety measures are in place, how hours and jobs are being protected. There are the usual ways to peer over the walls of an organisation, such as Glassdoor and Facebook, but new ones too, such as Just Capital’s Corporate Response Tracker.
It appears organisations recognise their duty of care in this crisis. Plus, many know corporate reputations will be made and lost as their people share personal experiences of working during this global pandemic. Let us hope employees keep their place in the pecking order long after this crisis subsides.
Our imperfect selves
When the health of the nation is threatened, we communicate differently. Only empathy, vulnerability and honesty will do. Yesterday’s corporate tone, which was often aloof, impersonal or simply bland, feels irrelevant at best and offensive at worst. After all, we are holding business meetings in each other’s homes surrounded by the ironing, inquisitive cats and restless children.
In an open letter to CEOs, David Murray, executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association, writes “as our nation faces one of the greatest challenges in its history, people are increasingly looking for reassurance, guidance and solutions from you.”
He adds: “To your relief, you’ll see yourself lose the communication inhibitions that have limited your effectiveness in the past. You’ll suddenly stop worrying about repeating yourself too often, or not being the very most credible leader to deliver a particular message or misspeaking from emotion or a lack of information.”
Murray believes, at a time like this, there is no such thing as over-communication. “Presence is everything, perfection is not a thing. And you almost surely will misspeak; and you’ll correct yourself as soon as you can; and you’ll be forgiven.”
Internal communication practitioners have long been coaxing leaders to reveal a little more of themselves at work. We have always known it is only when the corporate mask slips that a real connection is made. Now, for all of us, the only acceptable mask is part of our PPE.
Leaders who serve
Might we see a new breed of servant-leaders emerge from this crisis? As each day unfolds we are seeing smart leaders focus on the greater good. They understand their role is to equip and enable others to get on with the job. They show gratitude. Servant leadership turns the power pyramid on its head. Employees do not work to serve their leaders; leaders exist to serve their employees and, in doing so, their communities.
Long after this crisis has passed, our organisations will continue to benefit from the gratitude and humble enquiry of business leaders who keep asking ‘how can I help?’. We can continue to play our part by providing a conduit between first line workers and the leaders who seek to serve them.
The deadline was yesterday
Crises are by their nature unpredictable, unexpected and volatile. Events move at pace and communication must keep up. Many of us working in IC will have experienced long and convoluted sign-off processes or had our plans stifled by corporate inertia. In a crisis, communication must be frequent and immediate. Certainly, my agency has never been busier and our clients’ deadlines never more ambitious.
Leaders are placing their trust in communicators to advise and act – at speed. This trust is being rewarded as IC practitioners worldwide step up to the plate. Might the brake pedal be lifted permanently after this crisis? New opportunities will open up to those IC teams who continue to find themselves empowered to act in the moment.
Trusted source of truth
According to Edelman, large groups of people are ignoring critical health guidance in part because they doubt the veracity of this information. At the same time, businesses have stepped into the void with responsible actions and information from credible sources.
Edelman recently conducted a 10-country study that confirms the role business must play as a source of reliable and timely information in this crisis. The survey found employer communication is the most credible source of information about coronavirus, with 63 per cent saying they would believe information from their employer after one or two exposures, versus 58 percent from a government website and 51 percent from traditional media.
As Richard Edelman writes: “For CCOs, it is time for you to initiate regular briefings for employees by your chief scientist or medical officer, to provide trustworthy content that can be shared with employee families or community, to reach out to government to cooperate in work-at-home initiatives and to ensure that the company’s social channels are contributing to knowledge and not panic.”
Edelman’s research has consistently told us trust is a scarce commodity. Looking ahead, those organisations most trusted by their employees will be ones best placed to weather the economic fallout of this crisis. We must continue to the meet the demand from employees for accurate and reliable information long after this crisis is over and, in so doing, further bolster our organisation’s credibility as a trusted source of truth.
An excuse for creativity
Reflecting on this crisis in his daily blog, Seth Godin writes: “It’s possible, with effort, to transform business communications (and schooling) away from the top-down, synchronised, compliance-focused, off-the-record, hierarchical and slow status quo to something significantly more fluid and powerful. But we’ll need to do it on purpose.”
Once we settle into this global experiment in home working, I predict AB’s clients will start asking for creative campaigns that reinforce community, collaboration and connection. I suspect they will also ask for new solutions for gathering internal insight and feedback; and generating dialogue and conversation.
At a time when many of our conventional modes of communication are obsolete or irrelevant, this is an opportunity to put the rulebook aside and try something fresh, even experiential. Necessity is the mother of invention after all. And hopefully this spirit of ingenuity will last way beyond COVID-19.
Reflecting on this crisis, author Dave Hollis writes: “In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.”
I am confident internal communicators will look back on this crisis with pride. Their passion, care and determination are helping quell anxiety, panic and fear inside organisations large and small, public and private. These practitioners are spreading knowledge, understanding and calm when it is needed most. But perhaps there is an even bigger prize on the horizon – a deep and profound shift in the way we relate to each other at work.