Have we recognised the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis that has hit us today? As we are scrambling to come to terms with the sudden outbreak, are business leaders totally into it? What are some critical questions that CEO should ask and what are some important issues to address right now? How to plan for what comes after?
We got a clear picture, listening to Madan Bahal, Co-Founder & Managing Director of Adfactors PR in the RT Conclave, Master Series #1 –“Facing the future with empathy & resolve”. He seemed focused on ways to support employees, clients, communities, the country and to take it forward too.
We are passing through unprecedented times, where we have a ‘new normal’ for the future observed Amith Prabhu, Founder, The Promise Foundation and Founding Dean, School of Communications & Reputation (SCoRe), but he was enjoying it, doing things he couldn’t find time to do – like reading and writing. Minol Ajekar, Corporate Communication, CSR & Business Operations at Puravankara Limited admitted that for a construction firm ‘work-from-home’ is new but they were “tracking the happenings in other countries and had started planning for around March 11 and that helped us!”
This is absolutely unprecedented and the world has not seen anything like it, no country is untouched, no economy, no business is safe, no individual is safe, said Bahal. The economic meltdown of 2008-09 or the Harshad Mehta scam – during these crises, we handled it well at Adfactors, calling all hands on deck to work together; we lost 40% of our business, but we recovered and even had growth that year. The world is facing a crisis of health, economy and leadership, he pointed out. India is doing well, compared to countries like US, UK and Spain. “Ï think this is the time for us to stand tall, lead by leadership with empathy and compassion,” he stated.
Uppermost in an employee’s mind is the question – do I have my job or will my salary be cut? Fear and anxiety will reign during this hour. And how can leadership handle this? For the PR firm, Bahal emphasised that “the client has a bigger stake and the lease we can do is to keep the service going.” So the mantra to follow is – be hyper-connected, hyperactive and hyper-proactive!
Keep communication intact
PR professionals have to realise that you are in the critical, essential service, in the business sense, so the clue is to keep the communication lines intact and when that gets broken, more anxiety and trauma sets in.
And CCOs and CMOs have a role to play felt Bahal. What was his take? The risk paradigm is completely different now. Raking up the fact that communication and behaviour has always been upfront (it’s 90% behaviour and 10% communication) he observed that the reputation risk is the mother of all risks. A wrong tweet can have an impact on the employee (eg the recent Infosys episode). You have to be cautious and the biggest challenge for CCOs and CMOs is to understand that everybody is facing challenges. “It’s for you to understand the challenge and take it up to the top management”. Giving inputs to senior management is important and displaying a largeness of heart is critical.
Empathy is top priority
Empathy is top priority. Take the case of the Tata Group making a donation of Rs 1500 crore – they are doing their best; even the Mahindra Group stepping in to produce ventilators, and others too have come forward like TVS, Apollo, Vodafone. Besides the business challenges involved, it is all about keeping the country connected. “You need to applaud them,” he implored.
As Amith wondered how can PR firms take the lead? The logic presented by Bahal was very clear. “When thinking sets in, you realise your business is vulnerable and that’s when they will realise that they want the PR firm by their side,” he explained. PR should come out better off because in a time like this, you need crisis communication, internal communication, advocacy with the media and government. We cannot control what is happening outside, but we can control our actions. When one door closes, another opens. When it will come to rebuild business, which will be the second stage, everything will change, he disclosed. But now is the critical time – the “stress test” for business, while smaller businesses have their own problems. David had different problems compared to Goliath!
Smaller firms are reasonably worried about what is going to happen. “I would say, get into the survival mode,” he advised. The most important thing is planning cash. You should look like a necessity for your client. That should be the mindset. Don’t get frozen in fear, it’s time to act and lead. Play the role as communicator, effectively.
Mental health – to be tackled
Dealing with mental health was brought up by Amith and Bahal agreed that there was a lot of conversation around this. In fact, this has been around in the PR business, before COVID-19 happened, he observed. Each individual must be cognizant of mental health, and must take charge, and he gave some tips. Be super-busy (work is the therapy); this is the best time to learn (do courses, pick up cooking etc).
As for young professionals, what should they keep in mind? According to Minol, they should pick up tangible skills like digital skills and also intangible skills like empathy and sympathy. Work-at-home is new and we are trying to maximise engagement, she added.
Back to the future
In these difficult times, pitching has changed. It’s not a business-as usual mode and patterns of journalists have changed – they have become active for stories. It’s a different situation for the government. He thought the government of India has conducted itself well – when they announced the Janata Curfew, followed by the lockdown and the economic packages for the bottom half of India. But, India is known for ‘jugaad’ and they will come up with something.
And, the road ahead? Behave strong as leaders, have a sense of responsibility and it will help us navigate through this crisis.
The real impact of the situation has not come yet, this is just the beginning. We should be ready to plan for a long haul, was Bahal’s word of caution. We are dealing with a new risk paradigm. His parting shot was that it has just begun – “plan for the worst and hope for the best!”