Corporate Communications – dispatches from the front line

Over the past few weeks we have been talking to corporate communications/affairs directors (for simplicity I will use corporate comms) in a number of well known organisations to learn first hand of their experiences on the front line. Along with HR and IT, the communications function has been in the eye of the storm, with companies constantly having to communicate, respond and update,  as well as trying to remain connected to all stakeholders, especially employees.

Here are some of the headline points, with quotes to illustrate - more to follow in subsequent blogs, since there is far too much content to fit into a single blog. Not surprisingly the pace has been frenetic, intense and relentless (“a brutal few weeks”).:

Those working for FTSE 100s spoke of the double whammy of BAU at the busiest BAU time of the year (results, AGMs, annual and sustainability reports) and the intense and punishing crisis management response to COVID-19. “Our workload has doubled if not tripled”. Furthermore, reporting in a time of COVID-19 has served up its own unique set of sensitive and challenging decisions; whether to suspend dividend payments or not, furloughing staff, executive and non-executive remuneration, pay cuts etc., which then have to be delicately positioned, articulated and communicated. 

These decisions are of a different magnitude to those taken in ‘peace time’ because of the level of possible recrimination that may follow, and the consequent potential for lasting reputational damage. No one wants to come out the other side with their reputation diminished.

Additionally companies are also having to make big operational decisions every day, most of which will affect employees in some way, and which will be judged and scrutinised by other stakeholders. All at a time of huge uncertainty and in a world of imperfect knowledge. There is no precedent for this crisis so inevitably there is a lot of learning on the job.

“It’s been a time of failing fast and learning daily. But even when something has not landed perfectly, we’ve been heartened that our effort has been acknowledged”. 

In these febrile times, with news flying around fast and everything playing out in real time on social media, it is easy for myth and supposition to grow, so constant vigilance is also required.

Corporate comms leaders and their teams are playing a vital role in this regard, sensitising the leaders in the business to stakeholder mood and expectations, asking questions and posing scenarios that others may not have thought of..... and thereby helping their organisation make the right decisions and do the right thing.  

“I get helicoptered into so many meetings - normally asking for my view of the risk of doing something or the risk of not doing it. We are trusted and they want our view of how something might land”

Corporate comms directors do sometimes refer to the 'conscience of the organisation’ aspect of their role, although many are uncomfortable with this label and its overtones of piety. But there is no doubt that they sometimes do play this role, if only because they are more alive to the reputational damage and pitfalls associated with certain decisions and actions – how it will look and the impression it will make, how it will land and how it will play out. The Arthur Page Society used the term ‘Curator of corporate character' and this is perhaps more apposite. Either way it is one the key assets of a good corporate affairs team and one that has come to the fore in this pandemic.        

For those companies that are a) highly regulated and b) classified as essential by government, there has been the added complexity of interpreting what the government actually means, with guidance updates on a daily basis in the early weeks of the crisis. Adapting that guidance and turning it into HR policy and then communicating it, openly and empathetically, to employees has been a frustrating but very important part of the job..

“Working through how we would keep things open, what did government mean as essential”

“The government says “don’t go to work” and that is what our employees hear. Then we hear that they are essential workers who need to keep the economy going. But it is not said publicly. How do you communicate that to employees who have not heard that ad to whom this comes as a surprise, who want to remain safe, and who probably won’t be able to maintain social distancing. Then there is the thorny area of PPE”.

The internal communications team has, not surprisingly assumed huge importance, revealing just how significant and essential it is, often working 14 hour days, 6-7 days a week, in many cases with their children at home.

“It has underlined just how important internal communications is. Never underestimate internal communications, it is not easy, and it is a skill and an art”

"Looking for ways to keep employees connected and engaged across sixteen countries – it’s a huge job and it certainly is far from straightforward.....it is 24/7”

They are inundated by requests and questions from managers and leaders, who all have to communicate with their teams because they are physically separated from them, a new experience for many (see quote below), hence their need for advice and support.

“Previously they were able to wander past them in an office and not really engage with them, but once sat at home, their job very starkly becomes leading a bunch of now dispersed people, not just managing them, and the only way to do that is to communicate with them. They have no choice”.

New categories of communications are being created, almost by the day...how and what to communicate to furloughed workers, death in service communications planning and the daily challengeof safeguarding and monitoring the welfareof those workers on the front line and keeping anxious employees engaged and feeling connected in lockdown.

But although the burden has fallen on internal communications, the external communications and relations teams have not been twiddling their thumbs. 

The media working from home are more active than ever, all looking to break the big story or to expose companies flouting social distancing rules. The story changes weekly, if not daily and the comms tea are responsible for looking around the corner at the problems and issues that lie ahead that could easily become the next story; are make sure the company is prepared and has its response ready. 

Those companies with big customer service operations, with call centres operating at a fraction of their normal capacity are receiving a “horrific amount” of customer service complaints, which the comms team are helping out with, sensitive to their potential to become headline stories if poorly handled.

Public affairs teams are extremely busy, trying both to interpret and adapt government guidance for the business, influence government policy as well as, in the case of technology and pharma, actively work with it.  

“From a public affairs perspective, we have been working hard to influence central Government policy and providing intelligence and analysis to the relevant internal teams, particularly HR and Finance”

"We have tested our opening criteria with Number 10 and my CEO wanted to feel reassured that we were in tune with the mood of government”.

There was a general consensus that we are now out of phase one, and into phase two. The analogy of a sprint and a marathon (but a fast marathon) was cited by a couple of communications directors. The daily madness and uncertainly of the early weeks (the sprint) has subsided and been replaced by longer term scenario and communications planning as companies think about their future on the other side..

And this, they all agreed, was going to be a hell of a lot more challenging. It’s quite scary to think that the easy part is over!

“We won’t go back to work in the way we did previously. How do we expose people to public transport, what will this new world look like. The business will need reshaping So scenario planning for a multi-site company this size with so thousands of employees is fiendishly complex”

“The size and scale of the task of reintegrating employees is of a wholly different magnitude to that of getting them to work from home under lockdown. Employees will be in a completely different psychological state to the one they were in before this started. They may have lost friends and relatives and they are not going back unless they are convinced that we have done everything possible to keep them safe”

 “Now that the first immediate crisis response is through, fresh communication challenges start to present themselves. We are still open, and will remain so, but behind the scenes we are already making seismic changes to how we run our business and we are gearing up to communicate how we plan to carry on as the reality of an economic downturn really settles in”.

As we move into this new phase, corporate communications looks as if it will continue to remain at the heart of decision-making, combining this with its role as the key architect of communications. It seems to be having a good war so far.

watsonhelsby corporatecommunications frontline Covid19 coronavirus internalcommunications

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