This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of O’Dwyer’s.
When we were presented with the opportunity to contribute a column to O’Dwyer’s, we planned to focus on brand strategies and change management after mergers and acquisitions. Then COVID-19 hit, and we switched to crisis and issues management. But we realized that no matter the topic, it would be out of date by the time it got to publication.
So instead, we decided to look ahead, beyond the challenge of the day, and share some thoughts on what professional communicators—both clients and their agencies—will be managing over the long term. The following is our collective perspective.
New table stakes for engagement, culture
As work-from-home restrictions loosen, employee engagement needs to go beyond the near-term operational communications necessary to bring them back to work safely. Smart businesses are using this time to anticipate and adjust to what kind of employer they want to be.
Employees will ultimately determine the ability to pivot quickly and successfully. Moving from in-person to digital self-service? Shifting from low cost to high quality? Changing processes and operational models? None of it happens if employees don’t get on board—fast.
Involve employees in problem-solving and visioning. Ask them to identify the cultural gaps that are likely to hold you back. Make sure the business strategy is clear and well-articulated, and then double down on communications. Engaging employees now will help to build the resilience and determination needed for the long recovery ahead.
Reinventing the customer experience
COVID-19 resulted in a cycle of rapid innovation. Companies quickly assessed new customer needs and behaviors and launched new experiences and offers to re-capture the revenue that disappeared with government-mandated prevention guidelines.
Now, companies are looking toward the new emerging reality and determining if the changes they made in response to COVID-19 will remain, and what long-term customer experience shifts are needed to remain competitive.
COVID-19 made it clear that digital is an essential part of every business’s customer experience. Clearly, there’s no curbside delivery without the underlying e-commerce, CRM and API integrations with partners that make it all possible. But COVID-19 also made it clear that humans and empathy matter, with new Distancing & Disinfecting teams emerging to keep customers and employees safe.
So, what do you need to do? Quickly and constantly assess how customer values and behaviors are changing. Rapidly respond with innovative new offers and experiences. Assess your technology stack’s ability to deliver. Implement rapid test-and-learn cycles and operationalize what works. Then create content and connection strategies that build awareness, drive customer acquisition and encourage loyalty and referrals.
Fighting anxiety with clarity, transparency
From a financial communications standpoint, one constant truth magnified by COVID-19 is that uncertainty breeds volatility. The jagged rise-and-fall of the markets is not likely to change given that return to “business-as-we-now-know-it” will be anything but linear.
There are always key inflection points requiring effective communications with investors. Whether it’s the expiration of stay-at-home directives, the emergence of new market opportunities or the elimination of others, every development requires interpretation and context. If you don’t do it, others will do it for you.
You mitigate uncertainty with clarity, and that requires being abundantly transparent within the confines of the business and/or industry. Information helps investors and analysts form a clearer picture of your direction and, in turn, lessens uncertainty—and therefore volatility—in what lies ahead.
The inevitable rise of legal disputes
While it doesn’t thrill any of us, it’s inevitable. Expect more and more legal challenges as the interests of one group come in direct conflict with others. Nurses suing hospitals. Students suing colleges. Families suing senior facilities. Businesses suing governments and each other. The list goes on. It seems as if we’re all in this together, until we’re not.
Addressing disputes both in the court of law and court of public opinion is nothing new, but the issues arising from COVID-19 will have far-reaching implications on the burden of proof and responsibility. Take the time now to conduct risk assessments and identify potential legal vulnerabilities. Update business liability insurance. Have standby communications plans in place. And make sure your legal counsel and your communications teams are talking to each other.
Community relations gains relevance
Insurers returning premiums to policyholders. Hotels converting to field hospitals. Restaurants offering free meals to medical workers. Nothing sharpens the focus of community relations like a global pandemic. The potential for an extended economic downturn is amplifying the entrenched inequities in society, and public-private partnerships and corporate contributions are swaying headlines, hearts and minds.
Civic responsibility is the core of community relations. The 2008 recession forced businesses to consider the long-term economic value of connecting with community—earning their social license to operate. The time for pandering is past. The public is neither gullible nor guileless. Commitment to a community’s well-being must be expressed organically and authentically. Organizations can no longer respond with feel-good efforts or token endorsements of social movements. Self-aware organizations know publics are watching. Businesses need to dig deeper into their corporate psyches—and pocketbooks—to earn lasting goodwill and meaningful visibility.
Expect to see community relations focus more on basic needs, addressing the persistent gaps that unfairly disadvantage those who are deemed different or less-than. For their efforts, those who practice community relations authentically will be elevated to the role of “essential providers” in the public eye. The potential rewards are significant: goodwill, support, loyalty—even advocacy.
You’ve got a seat at the table—keep it
There’s not a single organization that could’ve managed itself effectively over the past three months without effective communications. That has earned professional communicators and their agency partners a well-deserved seat at the leadership table, advising on the implications of important decisions and then communicating them authentically and effectively. As we manage the effects of this global pandemic on employees, customers, investors and communities, it’s up to the communications team to bring its “A” game and deliver continuous value to others on the leadership team. Let’s not squander that opportunity.
Matt Kucharski, Padilla President; Natalie Smith, SVP; Dan Morrison, VP; Matt Sullivan, VP; Bob McNaney, SVP; and Tom Jollie, SVP; contributed to this article.