Navigating through uncertain times has put the spotlight on communications. While COVID-19 has triggered some serious global health concerns, fear is also spinning around a great deal of misinformation. We do have access to maximum information, but at the same time we’re plagued by ‘fake news’. Countries and organisations are facing challenges that are unprecedented and overwhelming too. Look around – there are total disruption of services, emerging new work patterns and so on. There is also the need for keeping brand relevancy alive, and in the times of COVID-19, it is all the more relevant to ensure that brand communication has to be authentic and in tune with the audience sentiments.
The first edition of #RTPRIMETIME focused on – A discussion on all things Reputation & Communication – an international perspective, and was moderated by Sunanda Rao-Erdem, Founder and CEO at Seraphim Communications. The participants were – Abhishek Suryavanshi, Director, Project Wikipedia SWASTHA, Jonas Spitra, Manager Corporate & Innovation Communication SCHOTT AG, Hans Christian Winkler, Spokesperson & Head of Public Diplomacy – German Embassy, India and Udbhav Tiwari, Public Policy Advisor at Mozilla.
The talk kicked off by focusing on what is the current Indian perspective. What has been the pattern of worldwide communication to respond to global public health outbreak? Consistent and accurate information should be an important part of the response. And some countries have fared well – like Germany. Representing Germany, which was the first country to ease the lockdown, Hans pointed out that the limelight was on India from news organisations for the first one to two weeks and here “the image is critical – it must not be negative”. “We have a specific situation here. There is an awareness of the problem India is facing, but there is also, quite an amount of compassion too,” he added.
Living in a brave new world
Are we seeing a new India emerging? Considering his experience of an emerging India, Abhishek shared that the feeling is of “living in a new world, a scary movie and not knowing how and when it will end”! Their project SWASTHA, is a special awareness scheme for the healthcare affiliates, and they mobilised volunteers, who were experts and continuously updated their COVID-19 pages. People are panicking and they search for information. With Wikipedia receiving a lot of traffic, it also increases their responsibility, he remarked. In India, as in the US, people were confused, unemployment was high and “it was an interesting world that were living in now”.
In these times, specially the question of ‘cyber safety’ pops up. In fact, currently it has been trending in the news. How does India feature in this section? Emphasising the importance of India’s image in the technology sector, Udbhav felt it was 50:50. In certain areas India can do better, for instance the Indian market still does not have a cyber protection law, but as far as net neutrality is concerned, India has done well. “In that balance, India is moving forward,” he stated. Digital Literacy is also very important. And regarding data theft, he outlined three things to follow: trust reputed services, keep a lookout for suspicious activity and reach out to services like Firefox, which can help.
Communication perspectives are becoming useful today. What is the role that communication plays? What are the most pressing challenges emerging, and what is the business impact?
Often the vision statement of a company is the biggest comment. It puts into the right perspective, where an organisation wants a community or the world, to be as a result of its services. Belonging to a company that had a clear vision, Jonas noted that his Foundation works towards a good cause and is clear about CSR measures.
What is the communication that India is projecting as a country? How are Europeans viewing India? On a frank note, Hans revealed, “I see depression on one side and on the other side over-optimism”, (especially with the talk of companies shifting manufacturing facilities to India), but he felt that to fit into the new demands and challenges, India is putting forth more value, but a gap is still here.
How has the pandemic led to a change in organisations communicating? Wikipedia is taking measures, having reached out to healthcare experts to get quality content. “Through this initiative, we get information from experts which is verified, curated and most pages are locked”, explained Abhishek. People want to read in their local languages and a Google survey had disclosed that nine out of ten people trust content in their own regional language. Wikipedia was receiving about 10 times more traffic than the official sites of CDC and WHO combined and since they get 300 times more traffic than the government of India’s official site, they are taking strong measures indeed. “Wikipedia is by the people for the people”, he added. As for Mozilla, it is an ‘open and empathetic’ organisation as Udbhav put it, and their Firefox is available in many languages like Marathi etc and “the world is experiencing what Mozilla has learnt to overcome over the decade”. Incidentally, Mozilla also provides employee assistance programs which give employees access to sessions on mental health, he specified.
“Great communicators must be good listeners,” insisted Jonas. They must be concerned about what are the regional trends and platforms, and what are the languages to reach out to. During this pandemic, it is important to speak the regional language and understand the concerns of the people. The issue concerning healthcare industry is that pharma industry needs to be provided with great packaging so they can take care of other healthcare needs as well, he added at a macro level.
Is there a cultural difference while speaking to different audiences, and in businesses how has work been affected? Sure, there are differences in the way people communicate, observed Hans. The Indian market is different to the US market and it’s difficult to make ourselves understood. “That’s our task to understand the huge diversity of India. We show that we are a partner of India,” he said. It is important to make people understand in European countries about how India can be a partner. The German ambassador is very communication savvy and Hans admitted that it has been a great job working with him.
Is communication driven by the sentiment of the public? With Wikipedia, communication plays a challenging part. Sentiments and personal opinions don’t have a place on Wikipedia; it is driven by references and citations, according to Abhishek.
With the political sensitivity that has surfaced between India and China, it is hitting headlines every day. It was generally believed that the future of the India-China relationship will depend on “mutual sensitivity”. Our PM had given the clarion call to be “vocal about local”, but no one expected that the rosy diplomatic scene would take a grim turn, as it has now.
As far as the business world is concerned, how can political sensitivity affect investors’ perspectives? Will consumer behavior change? With production centres in Gujarat and China, Jonas wished that there will be a solution soon, as there is a huge issue to serve different communities. “We don’t know yet, but the situation is evolving,” he observed about the immediate outcome
It’s ‘virtual’ now!
The pandemic has changed the way we communicate. The global workforce is transforming amidst our new ‘virtual’ reality, and businesses are working hard to prepare for the future of remote work, and communication.
Social media has contributed a lot in communicating with people in this pandemic, shared Sunanda. Today in the new normal, everything has turned ‘virtual’. How much can we rely on virtual communication (taking Zoom into account)? Udbhav felt that on Zoom, there were great concerns but the company addressed it and has done an impressive job. Like all virtual tools, it depends on the user – how the user uses the tool.
Code of Conduct for communications?
Is there a code of Conduct for a communicator? The main purpose of the Corporate Communication Code is to establish guidelines for presenting the business to both current and potential stakeholders. Jonas was firm in the belief that if you are a communicator, you must have an ethical Code of Conduct. “It starts with you – it’s up to you to set up what you want to work in and then set the boundaries,” he elaborated. And here, remember, that empathy and understanding will go a long way in the virtual world, to create a positive impact.
The spread of fake news and hate messages, especially during the pandemic is the order of the day. We are often confused and don’t know what to take seriously. Wikipedia is doing its bit to help fight rumours and fake news circulating around the pandemic. Their project “SWASTHA” is targeted to fight misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic. Talking about fake news, Abhishek put forth the fact that it is a global issue – “‘Infodemic’ is the biggest issue, more than the ‘pandemic’”. We need to keep asking and checking out if it is a reliable source. How will it affect me and society?
Business & social responsibility
During these times, is business and social responsibility the biggest challenge? How do you have a perfect balance? That’s a huge debate, according to Jonas – how to support people to extend benefits. It does not have to be a contradiction, and organisations in Germany have set out money to contribute to different causes. Hans thought it has two sides – the classical side and the legal side; as per discussions in Germany, France, UK it’s a very complicated issue, not to forget the climate changes etc.
The German government is actively involved in working in India, and Hans added that they had great government co-operation. In fact, he said that Germany is interested in starting eco-systems in India and in other parts of the world too; they are not discriminating between industries and sectors, and as an embassy, they are trying to connect people. “We are interested in smart cities and finding urbanisation solutions for the future,” he spelled out. Pre-Covid, they were working towards making people meet as a government organisation. Now, they have to be “super creative” in their efforts and they need to figure out how to reach solutions with the new codes of working, vis-à-vis pre-COVID work pattern.
The pandemic has changed the rhythm of businesses. What are the learnings that we have come by, as we navigate through these turbulent times, with uncertainties that lie ahead?
Abhishek: Have trust in people, and believe democratisation.
Jonas: Listen: Feedback is sometimes annoying, but is important. Say what you know and be transparent, if you don’t know.
Hans: It can work, if you can analyse.
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