AB Thinks  →  22nd April 2020

The Reality Check – Shel Holtz on comms during and after Covid-19

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In Season 3, Episode 7 of The Internal Comms Podcast, Katie spoke to renowned communicator Shel Holtz, who shared some guidance, advice and good humour to help the us through this difficult time.

His comms career began in 1977, more than a decade before the invention of the World Wide Web. In 1994, he came up with the idea of using an intranet, a full year before the word was introduced to everyday business parlance.

Today, he is director of internal communications at California-based commercial construction firm Webcor.

Below are some of the main points we took away from a conversation filled with practical advice, insight and tangible examples about communicating in the shadow of Covid-19.

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#1 Make sure your comms align with company values
“I think you need to do a reality check as a communicator: ‘I’m sending this message, how does it fit?’ You should be able to align it to a given value or to a purpose. A couple of years ago I was really struggling with trying to synthesise everything that had been happening in the internal communications world for several years, so I developed a model for myself to use. And one of the elements of that model is ensuring alignment with values, so you’re constantly reinforcing them and showing how leadership behaviours and decisions fit with the values and the purpose.”

#2 Being honest and realistic are hugely important during this crisis
“There’s a reason they’re called unknown unknowns. It’s hard to plan for something that you don’t know. It doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of time spinning your wheels, trying to plan for every possible variable. So, we tell people, ‘look, the exec committee is planning for the next couple of weeks. We’ll re-evaluate in another two weeks and see how much farther we can get’. You just have to be upfront with people: tell them what is being planned, and why the rest is being left to see how this plays out.”

#3 This is a good opportunity for internal comms teams to step up
“Most of the internal communicators that I have been speaking with since all this started unfolding are acutely aware that this is an opportunity for internal comms to become the trusted source of information. I don’t think anybody is looking at it opportunistically, but they’re being leaned on by the organisation in a way perhaps they weren’t before. And their value is being recognised, which is great. If there’s a silver lining that comes out of this, it’s that more communicators will find that elusive seat at the table, or at least be seen as a more valued part of the management of the organisation.”

#4 Make sure your CEO avoids the stupid ray
“It’s important to reinforce the idea that the employees in our organisations are adults. Many years ago, a CEO told me, ‘when you sit in that CEO’s chair, you’re not aware of it but there’s a stupid ray that is aimed right at you. That leads you to forget that these are adults and start to think of them as children who can’t understand complex issues or take bad news’. He made himself go out on to the factory floor in his organisation at least once a month to talk to the frontline people.”

#5 Learn lessons from the pandemic
“When everything returns to whatever the ‘new normal’ is after this outbreak has passed, organisations need to sit down and say, ‘what did we learn from this? And what do we need to do to be prepared for the next one?’ Internal communicators need to be part of that conversation and part of that planning process because, unlike this time, when a lot of us have been inventing it, we need to have it ready to go. I’m hoping that this is the learning experience that means we know what we’re going to put into place when the next thing comes along.”

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