In 2019 something strange happened to the world. The Covid 19 virus struck. While much of the virus dynamics and its aftermath will go down in the annals of history, what will also be important is how we went about living with the new work (and world) order created by Covid.
The new world order challenged several businesses. Travel, hospitality, and retail businesses that depended on human contact felt the punch almost immediately. That said, these were the companies that probably understood the impact of the crisis early on. These were the companies that realized it was imperative to communicate openly and transparently with customers and stakeholders to instill confidence. For instance, global eCommerce companies announced a depleted staff presence to communicate a possible delay in deliveries.
The pandemic forced companies to relook at their work policies. But this relook was not restricted to just working but also to ensure that a work-life balance was maintained. Communication executives were in overdrive disseminating messages of wellbeing at regular intervals to their internal and external stakeholders.
Most of these messages were directed to the customers, employees, and government organizations. With Covid being the central theme, the communication pattern changed from the plain HR messaging to a more sensitive and sophisticated form of communication acknowledging the Work From Home (WFH) effort. So much so that companies went ahead to thank family members for their contribution.
Not that WFM as a concept didn’t exist before the pandemic, but WFM professionals were in the majority this time around. In many cases, the senior executives of the company were also doing business from their homes. Hence this time, the messages were more inclusive, or let’s say, empathetic.
The question remains, did it require a pandemic for organizations to display such collective empathy?
The answer to that question lies in the DNA of organizational behavior, wherein employee communication is usually an executive order or a harbinger of some unsavory news. In times of crisis, there are a couple of factors that determine the quality of information. One, of course, is the clarity of information that people seek – second, allaying their fears about insecurities arising from the crisis. These insecurities come in many shapes and sizes, but the chief among them revolves around job security.
Centralized framework for crisis communication
Most communication during the pandemic focused on giving clarity around the business. Companies identified their key audiences to precision and communicated in the medium where they were most likely to be found. Key audiences can be a handful if one goes deep. For example, they could be employees, stakeholders, customers, suppliers, government, academia, and media.
Crisis communication is a different beast and here is a framework for managing it.
Identify your target audience
Ideally, the communication strategy must address the needs of all these constituents. Any weak link here could mean a misfire that can breed inconsistency and have unfavorable brand and reputation consequences. The idea is to keep communication flowing from a trustworthy hub (ideally, a cross-functional communication hub) rather than a parallel organizational entity without any locus standi.
While it’s essential to be cautious about business disclosure for statutory reasons, companies need to be transparent as a lack of information at the right time may erode brand equity and open the business to unnecessary speculation.
Sidebar: The funny part is the regulators didn’t mandate anything from listed corporates about sharing business information. So, in the end, it was left to speculation whether it was business as usual or it was slow.
If we look at behavioral science, a crisis usually prompts an exponential desire, from the prospect, for openness while invoking the exact opposite reaction from the entity, disseminating the information.
Although many organizations didn’t use a framework, they stuck to the traditional route keeping their communication channels open with the sole objective to lower anxiety and rumors.
Choose the right medium
Social media became the platform of choice for many companies to talk about their Covid policies. Not surprisingly, LinkedIn became the medium where companies announced their Covid policies. Facebook, Twitter saw much fewer employee communication announcements.
If we were to look at the content in many of these communication pieces, most of them were top-down with a regular cadence.
Leaders at the helm made those statements giving a sense of authenticity to the communication. Company spokespersons were used, but they were adjuncts to the CEO, reassuring the stakeholders and customers that all is well.
Include a customer touchpoint
While the pandemic was ravaging most businesses, companies were looking beyond quarters. For example, companies like Google took a long-term view of their workforce policies and allowed their staff to work from home for an extended period. Another seemingly benign-looking crisis, that of mental health, and wellbeing, also raised its head during the intensity of the pandemic. In both these cases, companies that got this (communication) right brought up the issues of employee wellbeing and health during WFH. And, these were addressed by leaders themselves, which made it inclusive.
If employees were on one side of the spectrum, customers were at the other end. And, for both, the information needs were different. Ideally, a customer communication checklist should include customer touchpoints and messages disseminated at these touchpoints and when the next update is expected. For instance, a bank customer would like to know the working hours of the bank, complaint process, time and date of the next update, etc. It’s essential that these messages are developed centrally and cascaded downwards (via a robust workflow) to the line managers for implementation.
Reassure your audience
Probably the one thing that exemplifies empathy in both customers and internal audiences is reassurances. Messaging with a degree of reassurance is a consolation. It does more good than any other messaging that you may have. Reassurance is not a commitment but a forward-looking statement that stems out of transparency, vision, and purpose.
They say one should seek opportunity in adversity. Covid taught us that. Some companies changed their way of working while some transformed. But one thing remains unchanged… 80% of business is still communication.
Guest author: Trishna Patnaik, a BSc (in Life Sciences) and MBA (in Marketing) by qualification but an artist by choice. A self-taught artist based in Mumbai, Trishna has been practising art for over 14 years. After she had a professional stint in various reputed corporates, she realised that she wanted to do something more meaningful. She found her true calling in her passion that is painting. Trishna is now a full-time professional painter pursuing her passion to create and explore to the fullest. She says, “It’s a road less travelled but a journey that I look forward to every day.” Trishna also conducts painting workshops across Mumbai and other metropolitan cities of India. Trishna is an art therapist and healer. She works with clients on a one-on-one basis in Mumbai. Trishna fancies the art of creative writing and is dappling her hands in that too, to soak in the experience and have an engagement with readers, wanderers and thinkers.