Crises expose communications capability shortcomings

It is often said that that it takes a crisis for a company, more specifically its executive team, to appreciate and recognise the value of a strong corporate communications function with senior management level leadership

If that is truly the case, the communications function will be due a widespread re-calibration of its importance and value when this COVID-19 crisis comes to an end. The communications capabilities of larger companies, particularly those with substantial and often dispersed workforces, are being simultaneously tested as never before. Gaps and shortcomings are inevitably going to be exposed, and indeed already have been in some cases.

This is not just because of the unprecedented scale and graveness of this crisis. It is more because Corporate Communications and/or Affairs, unlike most other corporate functions, is still far from being an established c-suite function; with the level and calibre of leadership that this infers. Many large companies have a communications function, but no recognised senior leader of that function.

In the FTSE 100 itself for instance, 22% of companies do not have a senior level Director of Communications/Affairs, and this figure increases to 33% in the bottom half of the FTSE 100.These companies are generally lower profile, B2B companies, operating in comparatively unregulated and unpoliticised sectors. In such companies, senior level corporate advice, insight and expertise is not deemed as business-critical and the communications function is largely activity-focused and reactive.  

But in times of crisis, when companies are more highly scrutinised and when they are judged by (and remembered for) their response, experienced and high calibre communications executives are worth their weight in gold. Crisis communications – how, why, what and when a company communicates is a very large component of its handling of a crisis and it happens to be the part that everyone can see. Knowing how to communicate authentically, empathetically (particularly to employees) and appropriately is incredibly important, and this not does always come naturally to CEOs. As such they need advice and they are more likely to have confidence and trust in that advice if it comes from someone with real weight and authority.

Good communications directors also ask the questions that others on the ExCo will not have thought of, questions which sometimes prompt important discussions that might otherwise not have been had.  These are questions that a less experienced communications professional may not think of, may not have the courage to ask, and crucially, often won’t be in the room to ask.

Similarly, companies tend to be introspective, and a communications director can help prevent an organisation from taking decisions in a vacuum by contextualising them. Decisions, particularly in a crisis, that cannot be made without intelligent and sensitive consideration given to a) how they should be articulated and positioned (taking into account both the desired outcome and stakeholder expectations) b) how they are likely to land and play out and c) whether they are consistent with the overall narrative and purpose of the organisation.  Getting any of these wrong could easily and unnecessarily damage reputation and credibility.

Doing the right thing and being seen to do the right thing is crucial and it is all too easy in this ultra critical world, to do the wrong thing without realising it. A good communications director can highlight the unintended consequences of a particular course of action that others, more inward looking, just won’t have seen or have appreciated. It is a basic form of reputation risk management and it means that the communications function has to have the clout to influence executive level decision-making.

The power, reach and immediacy of social media have accelerated the pace at which events can move in a crisis. This escalation can induce panic among senior executives, further underlining the need for someone at the top table who understands this dynamic and can advise and plan accordingly and do this with a calm head. Someone who understands that keeping control of the narrative is paramount, as is transparency, as is sustaining a constant flow of relevant and helpful information, since any news vacuum will quickly be filled by speculation.

COVID-19 and the requirement to constantly communicate with employees, as well as external stakeholders, will have left a number of CEOs and executive teams feeling exposed and vulnerable.  There is a solution – hiring an interim corporate communications/affairs director. They exist and some are very capable indeed, but admittedly untested by a crisis of this scale. As a specialist head-hunter in this field, we have the candidate intelligence and connections that may well help fill an important gap

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