On April 15th Ellwood Atfield convened fifteen of the UK’s leading In house Corporate Affairs and Communications Executives to discuss their strategies for guiding their businesses through this unprecedented period of the global Corona-virus 19 pandemic. Led by a series of key speakers, it provided a forum for some of the most respected Corporate Affairs and Corporate Communications experts in the UK to share ideas and concepts that they have been employing throughout the C-19 crisis. We intentionally included a set of sectors in the conversation including, energy, media, aviation, financial and professional services, so that we could identify several common themes that each has employed. I want to share some of these core themes, many of which are highly transferable to other organisations and markets.
Here is what they said:
- Rely on your values
- Do only what is morally right for your customers and employees
- Keep the machine going and make an additional effort to secure a sense of normality
- Identify and embrace new opportunities to form partnerships internally and externally
- Use this period to regain control of your agenda
- Focus on your people
- Recognise that no-one has all of the answers
Rely on your values
The role that Communications has played in the development of the corporate values, coupled with your role as the lightning rod for corporate reputation, brand and corporate affairs, is critical during the current climate. It is now that you should start to see the investment you made into your Corporate Values pay dividends. Your values are more than a set of articulated ambitions, they are also the road map and cornerstone of every decision that you and the executive make. Rely on them to inspire you to take the next step and initiate the next programme. After several weeks in crisis mode, the “new normal” involves your business flexing in a way that months ago would never have been thought possible. The sense of Corporate Purpose is the raft of stability in a world that is now at best, fluid.
Do only what is “morally right” for your customers and employees.
Every Director of Communications and Corporate Affairs has to deliver on the wishes of multiple stakeholders. For much of the time, these priorities will exist in a symbiotic relationship. During the current crisis, that relationship can be more fractious and in some instances move in opposite directions and it is as impossible to meet the priorities of everyone. So the questions are, how do you decide what is the right step to take and how do you ensure that you can influence those who are out of step with that decision to come around to your view? The answer to this question is always do focus on doing what is “morally right.” This is not to say that all shareholders are not interested in doing this, that is not the case, but in some instances, there will be decisions that need to be made that are broadly noncommercial. It is critical that, if they are ‘the right thing to do’ that they are seen through to completion. This will result in a short term loss for a long term gain. If you are not on the executive committee then it is important to highlight to those that are, what your competitors are doing and how, if they are not making the right moral decision, that presents an opportunity to differentiate yourselves now and when this is all over. Fundamentally, if you are a business that is putting the welfare of your employees and customers as a secondary consideration then it will be remembered and you will lose that sense of loyalty to a business that has been focusing on what is right. To influence this you should also seek out an alliance with the CFO of your organisation. They are typically the person who would say, “no” but if you can secure their acceptance of this strategy then you will have secured the decision-making chain in your favour.
Keep the Machine going
A significant proportion of the population has had their world turned upside down in the past few weeks and because of this, you can assume that your customers, stakeholders and employees will want something that resembles normality. Clearly, this takes an exceptional amount of effort to provide, everyone’s lives are different but by ‘keeping the machine going’, by treating within reason, as many areas as you can, as ‘business as usual,’ you are providing an emotional tether to your stakeholders and employees that would have been out of your grasp just weeks ago.
Communications and Corporate Reputation can never exist in isolation, even before C19. A great deal of your work, whether it be public affairs activity or corporate reputation management was only successful because you formed a chorus of voices. Again, because of the rapid changes that have been enforced upon us, this is a time when you can make new, previously unobtainable corporate partnerships. What had previously been maligned or out of reach has now, because of the perspective shift, been brought sharply into view. You have shared interests with organisations who were previously opposed to you and access to budgets that only a few weeks ago would have been thought of as a luxury. Recognise this change in the landscape, capitalise on existing partnerships and seek out how you can forge new ones. In the short-term, this will help your work to gain even greater impact and in the long-term, you will set out the terms of how you can successfully work with others.
Use this as an opportunity to regain control
It is easy to forget that because this period presents so many obstacles, it also presents huge opportunities: One of which is to re-establish control of your communications agenda. Over the past few weeks, the breadth of priorities has been slashed down to the core questions, ‘how will we adapt? How will we survive?’ If a project does not provide an answer to these questions then it has been metaphorically ‘put in the bin.’ Now you can ensure that it isn’t taken out again. There is nothing like a piece of enforced change to allow you to look at what you and the business are doing, questioning whether it is working and effective or not. Use this moment to recognise that when this is over, for the first time in a long time, your inbox is will be clear. Going forward, you can instil a sense of discipline in yourself and across the business to avoid using resource on projects that simply were not working.
Focus on your people
Communications with your employees are now playing an essential role in the Communications Directors’ agenda. Every member of our panel described, in various terms how employees looked to the business for a sense of leadership and answers. The sense of trust for the employer is now firmly in the spotlight. What was, a matter of weeks ago a small part of a corporate affairs leaders responsibility is now taking above 50% of their time.
Again, it is important to set some guiding principles that you need to follow during this crisis. First and foremost, you need to be keeping your employees safe and it should be communicated to everyone that this is your priority; every single employee should understand their responsibility in achieving this key objective. Secondly, you need to ensure, where possible, everyone can continue to work; what digital infrastructure needs to be changed, what are the options that work for you and the employees? How important is it that Webex has withdrawn the ability to record the conversations that take place over it, for example. Does this mean that the video conference facility needs to be changed or upgraded? Are the facilities that you have in place meeting everyone’s needs?
Also, you need to ensure that every employee can contribute; the times of the morning coffee break are over, there is no water cooler to share that moment and so it is beholden on the business to ensure that the sense of collaboration, sharing and bonding is available; what might have appeared to be one meeting too many weeks ago, is now the forum where relationships, trust and collaboration happen.
Finally, the Leadership must be present in a way that perhaps they have been resistant to in the past and through as many channels as possible (in many instances the best channel could be an external one). This period has redefined what it means to be visible in a new remote world and given that the walk the floor moments that used to be taken for granted no longer exist, the sense of creativity required to achieve this has never been needed more. Authenticity is the key and so preference should be given for finding ways to actively engage the leadership with the employees as well as the potentially more comfortable but less engaging broadcast channels.
No one has all the answers
Being a leader in communications is often described as a lonely place to be. The Executive Leadership looks to you to make decisions and take accountability and your team does the same. Although there is a temptation to apply pressure to yourself and expect to have all the answers, quite simply, you don’t. No one does. You need to stop applying unnecessary and wasteful pressure on yourself and start to build a network of individuals where you can collaborate openly. Ideally, this should be with a high functioning executive committee but when this isn’t available you should reach out to an external network, a coach or mentor or trusted team member. There is enough pressure in the outside world without you, the communications director applying more to yourself to answer the unanswerable.
Thank you to all 15 Directors of Communications and Corporate Affairs who took part in this discussion.
Whilst I have you…. c19Commsvolunteers
We want to help fight Covid-19 but we can’t re-tool and make ventilators or supply doctors or nurses. However, we do know communications.
We want to put our network and capability at the disposal of organisations that urgently need help with their communications.
We will connect (free of charge), expert communicators (volunteering their services) with critical organisations who either cannot afford their help or are simply too snowed under communicating the fighting against Covid-19.
We are offering this service to charities and other organisations involved in health, social care, education and social housing. These organisations might need extra help with employee communications, crisis communications, or lobbying local and national government. We have already heard of communicators in critical organisations who are becoming exhausted working around the clock, who would enormously appreciate the extra help.
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer or if you require support from our volunteer network please visit c19commsvolunteers.com