The Changing Face of Crisis Comms: A COVID-19 Retrospective

We are proud to announce the launch of our Crisis Comms Whitepaper in association with Halston Marketing – ‘The Changing Face of Crisis Comms: a COVID-19 Retrospective’ 

From the first glimpses of COVID-19 in Wuhan, no-one could have possibly imagined the extent this pandemic would impact people around the globe. It is a prime example of how quickly a crisis can escalate and how it can dominate for months on end.  

The report is an in-depth research piece that reviews the COVID-19 crisis comms strategies from a first-hand perspective. It includes accounts from leading comms professionals from a wide variety of UK industries. It covers all the multifaceted comms that were required and the huge variety of target audiences they had to accommodate.   

COVID-19 is definitely one for the history books and it was integral to understand how different businesses dealt with the crisis and what can be learnt from the situation. The comms teams are the heart of any business and are the interlinking component between all of the employees.  

The research includes 10 separate accounts from comms professionals, some of which are IABC board members and others are from our wider network. The report will follow a timeline, with each contributor given a dedicated time period for their account where they review their strategy during this point in time, including the mediums used, the messaging and delving into the challenges they were facing at the time.  

Then the piece will follow with a comparison between each of the accounts, understanding the differences and similarities between their methods and highlight any correlations between the impact on their sectors or when they experienced their peak in terms of output. It also explores predictions from the professionals in terms of their comms strategies and possible stories.  

If you would be interested in reading the whitepaper, then it is available to download on the Halston Marketing website here. 

Why employers need to make sure we take pride in our work

Employee engagement is an important topic for companies. But do they truly listen to what is important to their employees and furthermore, do they act on it? And what can individuals do to manage their own successful working life?

 

These were the questions discussed by a panel of experts at the recent IABC event, How to Make Work Work, held at the VMA Group.

 

At the heart of the discussion was a new book by communications consultant and IABC member, Sheila Parry, “Take Pride: How to Build Organisational Success through People”. The book calls on business leaders to consider not only their organisation’s goals, but also what makes their people tick.

 

Parry’s research shows that companies often think about how employees can become company ambassadors. But they don’t give the same consideration to their employees’ own values. The book argues that corporate and personal values and agendas need to be aligned in order for employees to take pride in their work and throw their weight behind the organisation.

 

Panellist Joss Mathieson, until recently global head of internal communications at GSK, agreed that corporate reputation has to be built from within the organisation. He highlighted that, with our working lives extending into our 70s, it is more important than ever to make work a place we feel proud of and involved in. This is particularly true of younger generations who are looking for experiences that enrich their lives − including at work. They want to work for organisations that have a purpose they can identify with and contribute to.

 

Christina Fee, internal communications manager at DS Smith, emphasised the power of enabling employees to develop their own sense of purpose alongside that of the company. When it comes to achieving this alignment, she said, business communicators have a key role to play in ensuring that every single person is pulling in the same direction, and knows how they fit into the bigger picture.

 

For Howard Krais, communications manager at Johnson Matthey and IABC president, energy is a critical factor in the relationship between an organisation and its employees. People draw energy from the work they do, he said, and the more they are passionate about their work, the more energy the employer can tap into. It’s important for organisations to ensure that employees maintain their energy levels. And while companies pay lip service to wellbeing and mental health, Krais said that many had yet to fully grasp what it means to care for their employees on an emotional level.

 

The panellists agreed that an employee’s success also comes down to their taking greater control of their working lives. Rather than just accepting what is being handed down to them, employees need to take a much more active role in shaping how they work. This, above all, requires courage on the part of the individual − and listening on the part of the employer.

 

By Andrea Willige

Listening – a strategic communication capability

 

“Good communication is not just data transfer. You need to show people something that addresses their anxieties, that accepts their anger, that is credible in a very gut-level sense, and that evokes faith in the vision.” John P. Kotter

 

I have just been listening to Thomas Bjørn the captain of the victorious European Ryder Cup team.  He said a similar thing to John Kotter when talking about the secret of his team’s success.  He emphasised that success lay in really understanding the motivations and desires of members of the team.  I’m paraphrasing, but he said of his team that: “They are all professionals at the top of their game so winning is not about telling them what to do but listening to understand what matters to them.”

It strikes me that these examples from John Kotter (a change leadership guru) and Thomas Bjørn (a contemporary leader in a highly competitive field) are relevant in this age of rapid digital transformation.

We need leadership communication that inspires, provides clarity of mission and purpose, and that enables people to operate with autonomy.  This is a style of leadership communication that is less about transmission and broadcasting and more about listening, and which places a premium on understanding the perspectives of others and building empathy.

 

The listening leader

Right at the heart of this discussion about change, Kotter’s quote above conveys the essential need to communicate at a personal, emotive level in order to stand a chance of getting people to buy-into new directions and ways of working.  It also captures the insight that inspiring people begins not with broadcasting but with listening.  To “address anxieties” and to “accept anger” requires an ability to be sensitive to, empathise with and tune into the concerns and emotions of the group leaders aim to influence.

 

This implies that the inspirational leader is not the stereotype of the extreme personality or the ego-centric CEO leading the charge.  Rather, the inspirational leader begins not with talking but with listening to what people think and feel.

 

Reflecting on personal experience

Bringing this down to the personal level, consider when you last felt completely engaged and committed to the goals of an organisation that you worked for, or with.  Take a minute to reflect on what drove that engagement.

Based on numerous conversations over the years I have found that a number of themes recur which emphasise how important “local” conversations and empathetic listening are compared to “inspirational” communications from a remote leader.

 

The role of listening and empathy in communicating strategy

In reflecting therefore on the need to develop more conversational approaches to change, and the 10 characteristics of effective strategic conversations, it strikes me that listening and empathy run through all the things that leaders need to do to communicate their strategy.   But how do you make this happen?

 

  1. Provide clarity of purpose and vision
    This is focused on making meaning for people. Leaders need to give people clarity about what the organisation stands for, who it aims to serve and what things should look like in the future when it is successful. The purpose piece requires a deep commitment to understand what connects customers, stakeholders and employees to an organisation, listening to the difference that it makes to others and what value that difference delivers to them.
  2. Develop shared goals at top
    Ironically often the piece that is missing and that is obvious if it is absent to others. The CEO or leader needs to get the top team to listen to each other and sets the example by ensuing he or she can advocate others points of view as well as his or her own on the way to defining shared goals
  3. Encourage a focus on strengths and celebrate what you do well
    Great leaders are sensitive to the things that matter to their employees and will recognise the talismanic quality of old brands or legacy organisations. Rather than dismiss these as outdated they will honour heritage and recognise the skills that went into building these. This is a true test of empathy as one of the common problems is that new CEOs, merged organisations or leadership teams building new brands often discount history and miss the emotional impact old symbols, brands and companies have for people.
  4. Build conversational skills and curiosity
    Genuine conversations involve being present and paying attention to the views of others. If we are waiting to talk we are not really listening and others will spot that lack of authenticity quickly. Effective strategic communication today needs to be cantered around high-quality conversations that allow people to explore the implications of strategy for them. Leaders at all levels need to pay close attention and be curious about the needs of others to earn their right to explain their vision and strategy
  5. Focus on the future
    Strategic conversations focus on how teams can influence events and take more control of their environment. Given the pace of change teams need to be responsive and fast which can only be achieved with leaders who are willing to listen to their teams and empower colleagues to take decisions
  6. Adopt an external perspective
    Strategy and its implementation do not occur in a vacuum. Listening to the needs of customers, suppliers and other stakeholders and paying attention to the actions of competitors and new market entrants ensures relevance and responsiveness
  7. Tolerate ambiguity and build resilience
    We live in uncertain times, yet we all crave more certainty and knowledge of what may happen in future. Great leaders can invite their people to discuss the implications of future uncertain events and lead conversations on what we can control and what we cannot control. Their ability to listen, empathise and focus on what we can influence helps build capacity for change.
  8. Be clear on outcomes and share responsibility
    Effective communication and implementation of strategy involves distributing intelligence around a business so that at each point there is a degree of clarity about our role in supporting the bigger picture. By understanding the essentials, we know what to do when we make local decisions, allocate resources or serve customers. This degree of flexibility and responsiveness is achieved not by telling people what to do but by listening, planning and working together to share responsibility
  9. Encourage discovery and emergent thinking
    The leader in the modern day is not an expert orator but an expert facilitator. He or she is good at asking questions and exploring options to help people figure new ways of delivering – letting go but in the context of a clear framework
  10. Build relationships
    People want to connect with colleagues. Leaders and managers need to help people feel part of their “in-group” and help their teams build great relationships by listening and empathising with each other.

 

In summary, empathetic listening is critical to effective strategic communication.  It is the skill that must come first, and it is a skill that needs to permeate throughout the organisation to support engagement at all levels.

It may sound counter-intuitive to start with listening but the evidence from leadership researchers, neuroscientists, behavioural economists – and our own experience – tells us it holds the key to engagement.

 

By Mike Pounsford

Founder, Couravel

[email protected]

Mike works with leadership and with specialists in communication to clarify and communicate purpose, vision and strategy.   He founded his own business, Couravel, in 2001 and works to help define and share common meaning.  Clients have included global and smaller UK based businesses and organisations in the private, public and third sectors.

Mike is currently the Past President of IABC UK.

Reflections On A Conversation Across The Ocean

I’m just reflecting on a great conversation (#iabcacrosstheocean) we had between the IABC members in San Francisco and the UK. We will post a full recording of the conversation soon.

We set out to explore how we manage communication in the UK and in the USA. Rather than having an expert come to talk to us about the cultural differences and the implications of these we decided to use the knowledge and experience of our members to explore the theme.

So, what came out? First of all, thoughts on the role of communication:

  • We all agree (not just on the panel, but also in our pre-conversation survey) that communicators are increasingly acting as business partners and that our role encompasses
    • Helping to connect people to make them feel part of one company with shared goals
    • Helping leaders communicate effectively so that they share that narrative
    • Support line managers by supporting leaders – more effective leadership communication helps provide the knowledge and role models that support line managers in making connections with their people
  • What it is not: communications professionals should not be responsible for the communication skills of line managers, but we influence through the way we help leadership communication

On the challenges facing communicators today the conversation covered:

  • It’s important especially in large global organisations to be very clear about the boundaries and responsibilities in communication teams
  • One of the key challenges of new technology is helping leaders understand how they need to adapt to exploit it fully. This is not just about responding to an “always on” environment by managing different channels, media and responsibilities; it is also about a change in mind-set and a change in style. We talked about the need to be bolder and more informal
  • Demographics is an issue. Young people strain at the leash and are keen to learn and get involved, older people provide an invaluable resource and pool of experience that we would be foolish to ignore

What do communication people need to help them in their roles?

  • Less of us may now come from journalistic backgrounds, but we need to keep the key competencies and values of attention to detail, checking facts, being truthful and honest
  • We need global mind-sets. It’s not just about managing large organisations with offices all over the globe, it’s about sensitivity to the needs and demands of people in different places operating in different time zones and in different cultural environments

What are the cross-cultural perils?

  • We need to pay attention to language. Catherine supplied a great story of an acquisition in which the American parent celebrated the UK company’s habit of an annual event in which UK employees threw pies at leaders (don’t ask!), describing how they wanted to honour the tradition of tossing at the boss

It’s difficult to capture in a few bullet points the richness of the conversation that we had. These points are my take outs from the discussion. There were lots of us involved so please add your comments below.

We did not address in depth the central hypothesis that there are major differences between the UK and the USA in how we manage communication, other than Catherine’s story about the language problem. We also ended up focussing on internal vs external communication challenges – a reflection perhaps of the experience of the panellists. So, there is much more to explore in this debate and we hope to have some more of these conversations designed to put the I into IABC at the chapter level.

Finally, a big thank you to the panellists who helped in the conversation and who were brave enough to face a live audience. They were:

  • Catherine Rudiger, Vice president of ICF in San Francisco
  • Howard Krais, Communications Director, GSK plc and President Elect IABC UK
  • Daniel Schraibman, Independent Consultant and Board member IABC UK

I’d also like to record a big vote of thanks to Gay Flashman and her team from Formative Content whose technology made the whole thing possible

Mike Pounsford

President IABC UK

 

 

 

Improvisational Storytelling Workshop

If you would like to build on your current communication strengths, join us for this tip-filled 90-minute session.  We’ll explore the power of improvisation-based story-telling techniques to develop your skills in getting the message across.

 

Whether your aim is making more effective personal or corporate communications,  you’ll re-ignite your creativity through a series of experiential activities, illustrative models and reflective discussion.

 

In this participative workshop, you’ll learn:

  • How to craft stories that get the message across
  • How the Applied Improvisation approach to communications helps with clarity, confidence and charisma
  • How to access your creativity – in the moment and on-the-spot
  • How to apply these ideas to your work on brand or strategy – bring along a current case
  • How to respond to change and make better use of your resources

 

The session is led by ex-journalist and BBC comedy producer, Paul Z Jackson, co-founder of the Applied Improvisation Network, whose recent clients include Disney Animation Studios, the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and Lush.

This event will take place on Thursday, January 25, 2018, from 6:00pm to 9:00pm at Jerwood Space- Space 8, 171 Union Street, London, SE1, 0LN.

To register, please visit this link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/improvisation-based-story-telling-for-communicators-tickets-41206711383