According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity “to reset the norms and rules of capitalism in ways that enable businesses and economies to become more resilient and regenerative.” And the key to ensuring that companies take these lessons on board is a strong communications strategy that foster a transparent stakeholder-centric culture within the firm.
Few would disagree that during a crisis, communications are critical to an effective response, but the scale and duration of the COVID crisis are entirely new, posing previously unimagined challenges to companies’ communications functions. Not all have risen to the occasion.
Some businesses have attempted to use the crisis to build sales or promote their products: Subway earned a negative response with an offer of a free mask for every order over a certain value; several travel companies were unable to counter bad press after offering vouchers instead of refunds.
Corporate communications practitioners have noted a lack of empathy in companies’ public statements at a time when communities are experiencing heightened anxiety, job losses and uncertainty about the future. At times of crisis, companies have the opportunity to establish trust within the community through both words and deeds, which demonstrate that the company’s values extend beyond its balance sheet.
Research shows that trust in institutions has suffered in recent years, but companies which do the right thing can enhance their reputations. McKinsey says, “Australians take pride in being good citizens—embedded in their cultural DNA as ‘mate-ship; they generally adhere to social norms and rules and expect others to do so as well.” As a result, “what has emerged in Australia is strong support for local communities and a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’.” These behaviours have also been observed across Asia.
For companies, this emphasis on stakeholder-centricity creates greater unity and engagement through its emphasis on a common purpose. Driven by skillful communications, this creates a self-reinforcing cycle which strengthens the company in all aspects.
Acts of philanthropy give staff, customers, suppliers and partners a demonstration of the company’s values in action – its societal purpose – which in turn engages employees and drives retention, attracts customers who will remain loyal in hard times, and shows companies their future path.
But an enhanced sense of purpose can’t be faked or fudged: building it into a company’s value system in a meaningful way requires a dynamic combination of leadership and communication over an extended period of time – particularly through periods of adversity.
Industry analysis shows that CEOs are the most trusted source of information in a crisis. For leaders to build and sustain trust, they require the support of a strategic communications function. A sophisticated and well-structured function at this level requires experienced professionals. The once tactical “fire-fighter” has now become the chief advisor and reputational risk mitigator.
Capabilities of today’s communications leader are inherent in their ability to succeed. They demonstrate an ability to lead with authenticity and empathy, synthesize and sense-make to inform decisions, influence to enable shared outcomes, demonstrate agility and flexibility within changing environments, have political nous, and a sound awareness of technology and business metrics. In partnership with the CEO, they must develop a strategy based on transparency and openness to dialogue.
Although it’s not clear when a return to normality will happen, most agree that it won’t be the normal we once knew – but this need not be disastrous if companies apply what they are and have learnt to benefit all stakeholders. Key to this process is the ‘all in this together’ culture that has emerged, putting stakeholders instead of profits at the center of corporate culture.