I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. As communications professionals, we’ve been in crisis mode for months now. As we lick our collective wounds, take a deep breath and begin to contemplate a potential return to the office, it makes sense to also begin looking forward to the next phase of the pandemic response and how our communications strategies will have to evolve.
Phase one was emergency response. Stakeholders needed to know: Can we ensure business continuity? How is our supply chain being impacted? Are we being good corporate citizens and giving something back? Not to mention addressing the questions our teammates have: Is my job secure? Will I be furloughed? How will you keep me safe at work? How will you support the shelter-in-place requirements, and can I work remotely?
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jun. '20 PR Firm Rankings Magazine.|
The good news is that most of us have done the work to address these initial issues. Some of them continue of course, and in some cases are exacerbated by how long this pandemic is lasting. But we have a handle on these communications issues. For U.S. companies, it’s time to turn our attention to the next phase of this crazy situation: the return to the workplace and the new business climate. The world has changed, and that might mean some big strategic shifts for marketing. What do we need to think about next, from a communications standpoint?
It’s time to tell the world that you’re open for business and ready to face whatever challenges this new environment and all of the complexity it brings.
Put your employees first—publicly
I shouldn’t have to tell you by this point that how you take care of your employees can have a significant impact on the perception of your brand. Wal-Mart and Amazon have been poster children for this brand issue of late. As business leaders, I assume you’ll authentically think about the treatment of your employees as they eventually begin returning to work. As a communications strategist, I encourage you to share your thinking publicly, to think about this as a defensive maneuver. You don’t have to—in fact, probably you shouldn’t—try to get media coverage for your actions, which after all are done in the interest of good business and humanity; but a blog post or publicly shared internal memo to employees can give you a hedge against a potential negative perception. A little transparency can be your friend here, and remember, sometimes no coverage is the best result.
Everything you do remains in the context of the pandemic
Returning to the office isn’t the end of this issue by any stretch of the imagination. And we’re all trying to find ways to return to “normal,” whatever that now means. Reporters too are getting tired of the deluge of COVID-19-related story pitches and hunger to return to their assigned beats. And yet the COVID-19 media coverage continues, from every angle. Don’t make the mistake of believing that your announcements, actions and predictions can be viewed in a neutral light. Even when we try to ignore it, the pandemic surrounds us. Masks, limitations on personal freedoms, record numbers of unemployed: all these things permeate our personal lives. It will continue to impact the response, by media and our stakeholders, to our actions for some time to come. Connections will be unearthed or inferred, and those connections will drive the coverage. The only real way to maximize your visibility and still control the story—a little—is to draw those conclusions yourself and move quickly back to your narrative. Which reminds me …
Refresh your narrative
As a strategist, I’ve counseled many companies on the development of their “North Star” or company narrative. I’ve helped executives and founders articulate their perspective on what’s happening in the world, what major shift or sea change is approaching and why their company is uniquely suited to address their audience’s needs in this new environment. And I’ve stated hundreds of times that this shouldn’t be a moving target; an authentic company narrative isn’t something that changes often. But this might be the time to do it.
I’m not suggesting you make a major positioning shift. Presumably, your narrative addresses issues that still exist. But the world has changed dramatically; this is a moment where the environment has shifted perceptions in ways that you didn’t likely anticipate when you developed your brand. Your investors, customers and prospects are looking at the world through a new lens. Take a moment to consider if your narrative needs to become more inclusive, more human or more sensitive to the new world order. Communications leaders: this is your responsibility and the reason you deserve your seat at the table. Use this exercise as a tool to help your executives look at the company through an external lens and perhaps realize there are business shifts to be made.
Bring out the big guns
Many companies work to shield their CEOs and founders from crisis situations. In fairness, I’ve given that counsel before: select a crisis spokesperson and deflect all questions in their direction. Beyond the top-level crisis resolution messaging, keep the CEO focused on the business and the vision. And certainly, if there’s a supply chain expert or you have a healthcare division, those folks should continue to have a significant communications role.
But this is not your typical crisis. This is a new normal. If your senior executives are in hiding, it’s time for them to come out. If you want to really reassure your various constituencies that you’re confident in your business’ ability to persevere, they need to hear it from the folks at the top. COVID-19 is the world that your business must succeed in; this is a C-level conversation. It’s time for top execs to emerge as the thought leaders and visionaries they claim to be. How can your executive platforms evolve to encompass our new reality, and how is your company going to demonstrate true leadership in this new climate? Answer these questions internally now. If your thought leader is better in written form, use the blog or contribute an article to get your ideas out to the public. Contribute your insights to the industry dialogue. Don’t be afraid of the conversation, welcome it. Winners want the ball.
If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that facing our shared issues openly is a much more effective strategy than keeping your head down and hoping not to be noticed. This is especially true in a crisis. If you have a security breach, it’s far better to go public quickly and reassure constituents proactively than to try to conceal the problem. If you’re ousting an executive for misconduct, you tell your story first, drive the narrative and reassure stakeholders that everything is well in hand. In the new normal that is COVID-19, the same rules apply. Reassure the world that you’re ready to handle this new environment and all that comes with it. Frankly, we could all use a little reassurance these days.
Syreeta Mussante is North America Managing Director at The Hoffman Agency.