We hosted a virtual roundtable discussion focusing on communications, engagement and CSR with international and national guest panelists from BAE Systems.
The discussion was led by Mark Phillips, Group Communications Director and a member of the BAE Systems plc global Executive Committee. He was joined by Chandran Vigneswaran, Communications Director, BAE Systems Australia, and Tiji Bardall, Chief of Staff with BAE Systems in London.
Mark is responsible for driving global communications strategies across the defence, aerospace and security business. He began his career in local government before holding senior communications positions with BAA plc, Royal Dutch Shell plc and Barclays Bank plc. He joined BAE Systems in 2010.
Chandran leads BAE Systems Australia’s communications strategy, value proposition and brand and has played a key role in the company’s bid to secure an AU$35 billion program to deliver the next generation of frigates to the Royal Australian Navy. He previously held senior roles with Santos, BP and Origin Energy.
Tiji supports the Group Communications Director in delivering responsibilities and programs. She provides a link between the worldwide communications function, its senior leadership team and the broader organisation. Tiji previously held roles at BAE Systems, Mercer and AMP in Australia.
A few months ago, research by global consultancy Bain & Company asked CEOs from differing sectors how they were leading their businesses through these turbulent times. In particular, CEOs were asked to characterise how they were communicating with their organisations.
A small proportion of those leaders said the theme of their communication was ‘this is a time of crisis’. More hopefully, 70 per cent of CEOs were communicating ‘this is a time to restore balance’ and for 15 per cent the message was ‘this is a time to look ahead’.
The Bain & Company research highlighted the importance of business leaders being aware that every single action they take now and post-pandemic is ‘a communication’.
“Very wise CEOs are also aware that every action they take, big or small, during and after the crisis sends a loud message. It signals the leadership team’s values and priorities to every employee and customer…Everything communicates. And this is your moment,” wrote James Allen, senior partner in Bain & Company’s London office.
Navigating the challenges and uncertainties created by the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a bright spotlight on the importance of timely, transparent and effective communications.
Discussing this, Mark Phillips says that BAE Systems’ communications function has played a critical role in steering the technology-led defence, aerospace and security solutions business across more than 40 countries. He says that from day one of the COVID-19 crisis, businesses’ reputations were judged on the strength and timeliness of their communications.
BAE Systems’ focus has been on communicating with its people, including rolling out an employee app, and its leaders harnessing the power of video communication.
Rita Zonius, a social media and communications consultant, has also written about the importance of communication being used to make employees feel safe and at ease.
“The organisations that didn’t prioritise internal communication will now see that you have to take care of your people first. Forward-thinking organisations will continue to understand this and be able to mobilise people around the things that really matter,” she wrote in an article for Qantas Travel Insider in May this year.
McKinsey research also champions a focus on ‘clear and inspiring communication’ to help businesses engage employees as they return to work post-COVID-19. Corporate leaders have become a trusted source and a stabilising presence in a fluctuating world and McKinsey says a four-phase approach that lays the groundwork, honours the past, marks the transition and looks to the future can help business leaders develop meaningful communication with employees.
On a practical level and communicating outwards, Mark says communicators must negotiate a faster-moving news cycle. The collapse of sales of print media and an increase in digital media consumption – and so an appetite for shorter news articles – is impacting the design and delivery of communications.
It is harder for businesses to get cut-through. BAE Systems is now gaining traction with media outlets by releasing more quantitative data and by delivering hard and fast statistics and facts.
Tiji Bardall flags the need for communications teams globally to stay well-connected so they can respond effectively together. BAE Systems has encouraged employees to join global virtual events and share their pandemic insights and Tiji says camaraderie between communications teams has been beneficial.
Added to this, Rita believes communicators will have to learn to ‘work more visibly’.
“People who get used to the idea that they don’t have all the answers and others can help them will soon find their work will be richer and they’ll be much better for it,” she writes.
Tiji also raises the importance of communicators developing or maintaining resilience – most crises burn out relatively quickly but the pandemic is going to be more like running a marathon and demands endurance. Leaders being able to spot when a colleague is struggling, being able to communicate with them about that swiftly, and providing the right kind of support is essential for the health and wellbeing of employees and the business.
This thinking is supported by McKinsey’s work on the post-pandemic period that states being sensitive to employees’ needs, understanding where people are at mentally, addressing emotions directly and ‘cultivating open, compassionate conversations’ matter. McKinsey also recommends businesses creating new rituals that, along with company values and a renewed sense of purpose, ‘can serve as pillars of psychological safety and normality’.
Chandran Vigneswaran says that the things that are important to employees are changing. More people will want to work remotely to enjoy greater flexibility and life balance.
The post-pandemic world will place businesses in a dynamic, evolving environment. Communications will play an influential role in helping businesses face down challenges and define a new sense of purpose and a new forward direction.