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Do We Need to Rethink Corporate Communications in the Wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic?


Expert Analysis from Conor Brophy, Director, Teneo. This article has been written exclusively for IoD Ireland members.

What playbook do you reach for when the game has changed completely?

There are many examples in the responses we have seen both here and abroad which reinforce the conviction that the outbreak of a novel Coronavirus demands novel thinking. We have seen rent freezes, extraordinary state-funded wage subsidies for businesses and the effective temporary nationalisation of private healthcare facilities in Ireland introduced practically overnight. Here, and elsewhere, economists are voicing previously heretical opinions about central banks financing governments directly to help absorb the economic shock.

“Whatever It Takes”

“Whatever it takes”, to coin the phrase deployed by former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi in responding to the Eurozone debt crisis, is now the collective cry of policymakers, business leaders and individuals dealing with the public health emergency and the restrictions imposed to help manage it.

This has led to new modes of working, new ways of coping with enforced physical distancing while retaining social contact and new degrees of reliance on the technology that facilitates these necessarily altered behaviours.

Among the many challenges facing organisations, some of them – unfortunately – existential in nature, is the question of how to communicate effectively and appropriately both during and beyond the crisis.

For many companies the means and frequency of communication, particularly internally, have been the most notable change. For smaller organisations with no previous requirement or inclination to call virtual town halls or record video messages to staff this has been a sudden and, perhaps, jarring adjustment. Large, geographically dispersed companies, meanwhile, are generally switched to “overcommunication” as the new normal. This is a sensible response lest newly homebound colleagues feel isolated and to prevent worry, speculation or misinformation filling any vacuum.

Brands and Senior Leaders

Already we have seen brands, and senior leaders, who have distinguished themselves for better and for worse in how they have managed their reputations and communicated with stakeholders through the still-unfolding crisis.

Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson won respect and praise for the forthright, empathetic and humble way he approached delivering a difficult video address to the thousands of the hotel group’s employees furloughed as the company reacted to plunging bookings and revenue.

Sports Direct CEO Mike Ashley, meanwhile, emerged as a near pantomime villain for insisting (before backing down hastily and apologising) that his retail outlets were “essential” and should remain open even as rivals shut their doors to comply with public health directives and to protect colleagues. One of the brands on Sports Direct shelves, Adidas, was forced into a similar volte face when it announced it would stop paying rent in any locations where its retail outlets were closed due to lockdowns. The decision was reversed as German labour minister Hubertus Heil added his voice to a chorus of disapproval for this behaviour in Adidas’ home market. Novel solutions required to adapt to a changed world did not, evidently, extend to granting licence to Adidas to back out of obligations to its landlords.

It is clear at this point, and underlined by the above examples, that demonstrating solidarity in a meaningful way is a must. The minimum expectation of external stakeholders is that businesses are seen to play their part – supporting workers, supporting customers and, where possible, supporting the wider societal effort to push back the virus. Any failure to meet this bar will be called out. Worse, still, in the court of public opinion is to be perceived to be trying to take advantage of the crisis – as Adidas discovered.

Hard choices necessitated by the drastic fall in economic activity must also be defensible as fair. Otherwise cost savings quickly become reputational liabilities. English Premier League teams Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur both came under fire for their decisions to furlough lower-paid, non-playing staff and avail of government wage subsidies even as they continued to meet the multi-million euro salaries of players and executives. Public pressure eventually forced both to reverse their decisions.

Authenticity, credibility and a clear sense of values have never been more important. Brands and companies with an earnest desire to help and, most importantly, with the relevant skills and experience to make a contribution, have emerged with credit.

Thankfully such examples have been legion. To mention but a few: Irish Distillers producing hand sanitiser; Sportswear manufacturer O’Neills pivoting to the production of scrubs for hospital trusts in Northern Ireland; Dublin Bus offering a free shuttle service to frontline staff at the Mater Hospital; and Circle K providing free coffee to HSE frontline staff and emergency services.

Finding One’s Role

Often the first instinct for all of us is to seek relevance, a point from which we can intervene or a platform from which to offer advice. This, obviously, comes from a good place. Everyone wants to help and wants to be seen to help. All the more so when the events in question are so wide-reaching and have such a profound impact on individuals, on society and on the economy.

There’s so much we don’t, and can’t, know at this point about the pandemic. How long it will take before a vaccine is developed, before the global infection curve can be flattened and how quickly we can distance ourselves from social distancing. How deep the shutdown recession will cut and what shape the recovery will take. Will it be V, U or W-shaped? Hockey stick or Nike Swoosh?

It is tempting to speculate on all of the above. We can speculate and make assumptions, too, about how behaviour may change and the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic could prove a catalysing event – altering how we work, shop, bank, travel and interact socially over the longer term.

Better, for now, to focus on what we can predict: the pandemic will run its course, hopefully with its impact on health and lives mitigated to the greatest degree possible.  A massive recovery and rebuilding effort will then be required. A whole of government, whole of business and whole of society approach will be needed to deliver this.

We can make some further assumptions with a reasonable degree of reliability.

Solidarity and sacrifice are not passing fads. Public/private partnership will take on a whole new meaning. Heroes will emerge, as they already have from among the ranks of our healthcare workers and those who support their efforts.

Purpose, often talked about in corporate circles and more so as prominent advocates such as BlackRock CEO Larry Fink and the US Business Roundtable have taken up the baton, will be the prism through which businesses and their leaders are judged. Talk will quickly be judged to have been cheap if it can’t be backed up by actions which are shown to have made a positive difference beyond the narrow focus of growing or protecting shareholder value.

Sometimes these actions and contributions are small. We can all learn from how The Body Coach Joe Wicks in the UK has enhanced his reputation of late. His free, live-streamed “PE” videos helping children exercise while they are on lockdown have generated 22 million views – and rising - on YouTube, with the advertising revenue raised going to Britain’s National Health Service. You don’t have to be involved in building ventilators or developing a vaccine to make a positive difference.

Finding one’s role and finding the right way to articulate and follow through with purpose sometimes mean we say it best, however, when we say nothing at all.

Communication is a Two-Way Process

There’s a scene in Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine that, for all the filmmaker’s oft-criticised bias and frequent polemics, delivers an important insight about communicating in moments of crisis.

The rock artist Marilyn Manson’s music and on-stage persona had been linked to the 1999 high school massacre by a number of media outlets which had claimed the killers were fans of his and had been inspired to commit their unspeakable crimes by his music. This, it was later established, was not true. It led Moore to interview Manson for his 2002 film, however, in which he asked the controversial performer what he would say to children in the community in Columbine or to their parents. “I wouldn’t say a single word to them,” he replied. “I would listen to what they have to say.” A pearl of wisdom from an unlikely source.

Communication is a two-way process. Sometimes the most novel and impactful approach is, firstly, to listen.