COVID times: Communication is key – Will it be a roadblock for brands or will it open up opportunities?

It is indeed, an unprecedented time in history, and a period of great concern for humanity at large and brands. Interestingly, ‘communication’ is key, during these uncertain times. Now, is the time to plan those brand communications. Time to reflect and act –  while this pandemic and the unknown persists. And, what about maneuvering through roadblocks? 

How are companies dealing with this chaos and uncertainty? How to manage a crisis that creeps upon us? Checking out this ‘new normal’ was Bianca Ghose, Chief Storyteller, Wipro – the moderator, who asked: What’s next? What‘s the responsibility of Public Relations? We have to lead through the crisis, but how?  “Where communicators can play a role is to support their clients and their staff and today, brands are stepping up!” said Nitin Mantri, Group CEO of Avian WE and added, “today we are all global communicators and communications will remain a business critical need now.” It’s a time when quick response to stakeholders will be upfront. Focus on safety of the stakeholders, so crisis therefore has become a PR mainstay!

Brands communication – on a roll

Brands get a headstart on how to communicate by focusing on crisis strategy, along with CEOs. Without a doubt, this is a moral imperative and a PR mainstay. Bringing in a viewpoint from the CEOs’ perspective network was Valerie Pinto, CEO, Weber Shandwick who was involved with a pan-India team and a global network too. “It’s important to understand that CEOs are under tremendous pressure and they have to work on business continuity plans; how to work side-by-side and communicate to employees who are concerned and anxious about whether I’m going to have a job or not. How do you set them? How do you contribute back to the society, as well.  Again the CEO has to make a tough call. How do you communicate that in the right way? You first have to set your employees, and then get into this business continuity challenge that has to be addressed; and then you have to talk about financial stimulus packages etc so that you get everybody motivated and also pull the entire team to get through this crisis. Therefore, the pressures on the role of the CEO is very critical; and being in communications, our role becomes even more important –  to be able to support them through different aspects of that communication. 

“The objective is to humanise the organisation”, stated Sonia Huria, Senior Vice President & Head, Corporate Marketing, Communications & Sustainability at Viacom18. This is the ethos that they are following for all messaging, external and internal. “And we have got it right,” she affirmed. For example, all the communication that is first going out externally to the world at large; is being prefaced from the CEO’s desk to all employees, so they understand that they are a socially responsible organisation,  that can act as a force multiplier. And, on the day the PM announced the Jananta Curfew, at Viacom they had a roadblock at 5pm, as they ran a successful campaign  – “Pause for a cause, applause and cheer” which got even appreciation from the government. Among the employees there was fear and anxiety, but the same messaging was reinforced (and to add to it – they even preponed the salary cycle!) 

How do you keep the wheels moving – about preparing the vision, quick decision-making and yet communicating to the employees and the world? Now, in the healthcare and pharma companies right now, do we log out of this crisis – of isolation and lockdowns? Jyotsna Ghoshal, Sr. Director – Corporate Affairs, MSD India found the role of communicators or strategic advisors crucial, as anxiety spiked up with questions galore were cropping up. How can healthcare step up?  She saw that three stakeholders need to be focused on – employees, patients and the society at large. Communicators can communicate only if there is substance and so, they set up a war room which was on 24×7, so that employees could reach out. As policy advocators, they also communicated with their partners to ensure continuity.  And, as “communicators need to bridge the communication gap, they have to give back to society”. 

Dealing with a number of healthcare clients, Deepshikha Dharmaraj, Chief Financial & Compliance Officer, Genesis BCW had earmarked some tips – to provide continuity from outside and inside. Be focused – on the purpose of your business and how you are going to give back. See this as an opportunity and make an impact. The second point was – to stay ahead of the curve. In the healthcare space, look at various scenarios that will develop and be responsible and give the right kind of communication. “Bust those myths,” she said. Then, collaborating and staying connected to the business and listening to conversations was vital, as the social media is bursting. “As advisors, we need to listen, pull up inside and enable clients to have the right perspective on how to collaborate further,” she noted. And, of course, evaluate every step, and decide what should be the next action and make a difference to all stakeholders.  

Looking at the ecommerce space, has consumer shopping patterns been affected? What are the learnings? Rakesh Thukral, Managing Director, Edelman India pointed out that the role of definition of essentials has changed and everything is so dynamic. “Continuity with safety is the new norm. What was taken for granted is not going to be true for the next few days or weeks,” he added. And the role of what to prioritise comes in. We need to prioritise for the maximum good and this mantra brings all stakeholders together. “This is the new level of efficiency. We need to play the role of multipliers; we need to start thinking of calming nerves and maintaining the basic essential safety with continuity and start getting ready for recovery,” he advised. 

And, since communication is most important, how will it be possible to deliver trustworthy messages at a time, when people are divided. ”Be authentic,” suggested Amit Misra, CEO, MSL South Asia. But misinformation and miscommunication spreads like wildfire, during these trying times. Law-abiding citizens should adhere to all advisories, urged Amandeep Singh Narang, Chief General Manager – Corporate Communication at Indraprastha Gas Ltd.  The best way is to listen to feedback/comments and carve out the best way forward. And, even in the communication space, there is so much of miscommunication flying around. The right communication has to go out to keep employees motivated for 21 days. For many organisations CSR is playing a big role. This is the time when you are “under the scanner and this is also an opportunity to build brand advantage”.

In crisis times, how is the balance maintained with limited budgets – to execute the vision? Marketing campaigns will change.”It’s an opportunity now on how quickly we can transform and move to the next orbit,” recommended Sudeep Bhalla, Vice President – Corporate Communication & Corporate Responsibility, Vodafone Idea. The need to be creative and imaginative is imperative here and to reach out to stakeholders, because “the customer is not just God”!

Is this an opportunity to make you go against the grain? Or is it wise to be silent? Roma Balwani, Sr. Advisor, Brand & Group Corporate Communications remarked  that the brand needs to have continuity. “We have been giving crafty messages in the virtual space, which is good for us. We have come together – a task force was formed, who addresses communication and we rejigged our communication around out tagline,” she explained. Realigning the communication helped them to build trust.

Employee communication: top-of-mind 

Employee communication and empathy is top-of-mind now. And, how are companies tackling this challenge? Backed by a large employee base, Sujit Patil, Vice President and Head – Corporate Brand and Communications. Godrej Industries Limited and Associate Companies, was determined to display the mantra they follow in brand and employee communication, loud and clear –  “Communicate, communicate, communicate!” Communication has to be authentic, verified, compassionate and most importantly, it has to be constructive and united, as their employees were spread across geographies. The danger was – you can sound as an “opportunistic brand” – for instance, if they talk about their handwash product today. So, the question is how to manage brand reputation in these times? This is the biggest challenge for brand managers. “There is no right or wrong, but we will evolve,” he said, on a positive note. 

In these times of over-the-top communication, lined by a negative sentiment that prevails, the question for brands is – how much to communicate? Purnima Sahni Mohanty, Director – Communications, Microsoft India felt, “We are focused on communication boldly. There is a focus on driving employee communications, customer and partner communication frequently”.  And, working with technology, we have virtual meetings which are really helping the brand. And, the need to adjust to technology and use collaboration tools – is all the more important now. 

And, what is the next immediate phase going to look like? “We are going back to the basics,” said Nandita Lakshmanan, CEO, The PRactice. “It is for us to share and demonstrate leadership and give a broad framework,” she shared. What is really keeping them busy is stakeholder communication. “It’s fascinating to see the elements of Public Relations we are getting to work on, these days. In many ways, we got to the actual meaning of PR, because we are now doing true shareholder communication,” she revealed. 

Mental health of employees 

But, the worrying factor was the mental health of employees for there are millennials, who are questioning and helplines have been introduced at Vedanta. Nitin too emphasised that there are multiple generations in their workforce and they have introduced small things like – virtual meetings, virtual lunches, tea sessions and even a drink party! Plus groups have been made to talk to subordinates in the team. But, it is a real issue, he insisted. Valerie informed that they have a helpline to handle this issue, which assists to keep the engagement levels on. Sonia also touched upon the fact that they have a psychologist on board, who is now inundated with around 30 calls a day! At Genesis BCW, the work-from-home initiative has been followed for many years, affirmed Deepshikha. They also have events like – team calls, virtual getogethers, and even a leadership drink party that was in the cards! 

Trying times ring in pressure. How do you ensure that people don’t commit mistakes? This is possible, but we have to do everything to be above the curve, opined Rakesh. There is an important aspect of maintaining rhythm and routine and work-from-home has to have a sense of rhythm and routine. 

 Are there any guidelines? We have to give space to employees to work out their own checks and balances, and it’s a learning time for all of us, disclosed Amit. And currently they launched a new challenge – the ‘DIVOC’, which is turning COVID, literally on its head! Employees are signing up, and it’s about sharing “positive intent” that can be overcome. 

Will the role of PR change? 

In these challenging times, we may wonder what is the role of communication/PR in partnering with the government. “This huge disruption has changed many things”, observed Rahul Sharma, Managing Director at APCO Worldwide. For corporates, it’s not about talking about their brands, but also about the high-end engagement with stakeholders, especially the government. What we are seeing today, is going to change several policies (of central government and state governments), and will usher in a new thought process too. “In the next two months, our businesses will be different, our engagement will be different and our future will be different,” he said with conviction. At the end, there will be new economic activities that will offer new opportunities. 

The question remains – will the role of PR change? Empathy is going to be important, externally and internally, insisted Rahul; one good thing is that the client and the consultancy are in the same boat, which makes the relationship stronger. And, when we get out, a lot of things are going to be different! In agreement was Amandeep who said, “Disruption is going to change the way we work, the way we communicate”. 

And, last but not least the finale – the leaders of the public relations and corporate communications world took the COVID Pledge – to build bridges and tide over the tough times. For as we know, when the going gets tough, the tough get going….

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

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Shree Lahiri
Shree is the Senior Editor at Reputation Today and hopes to move from one focus area to another in the editions that will be released this year. Having worked in Corporate Communications teams, she has experience of advertising, public relations, investor and employee communications, after which she moved to the other side – journalism. She enjoys writing and believes the power of the pen is indeed mighty. Covering the entertainment beat and the media business, she has been involved in a wide range of activities that have thrown open storytelling opportunities.

She can be reached at: @shree_la on twitter

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