How communication teams helped S-T-E-A-R the ship during the pandemic

Recently, I was part of a Clubhouse session organised by PRCAI on ‘Communicating in the Pandemic World’. It was an interesting session with senior representation from the consultancy side, the client side, and the media. While all of us have been looking at (and living through) the vast change in the communication space, sharing my thoughts with the group and learning from their experiences, brought out the magnitude of the tremendous transformation that has swept our industry during the last eighteen months. While PRCAI may bring out a paper or blog on the discussion, here is a gist of what I had shared.

Several departments within most organisations had to play a much more active, fast-paced, and transformational role during the pandemic than they are used to. Among others, the CEOs office, HR, Communications, IT, and Administration worked round the clock. Needless to say, that everybody dealt with several unknowns, unlearnt the regular ways of working, and learnt new ways of doing things – all at a pace that will make a racy action movie look like a documentary. If we analyse the role played by the communications teams throughout the pandemic, we can divide it into five phases, which together form an acronym – STEAR (Survival, Trust, Empathy, Adapt, Return).

  1. Survival: During the first several weeks of the pandemic, the focus was on survival. Both, organisations as well as the employees, were in survival mode. Overnight changes were made to business models to maintain business continuity and shift employees to Work from Home (WFH). During this period there was very little information available about the disease. While the cases and fatalities were rapidly rising work was yet to start on developing a vaccine and there was no cure in sight. Employees were extremely anxious and their topmost priority was the safety and survival of their families. During this time, the role of the internal communications team was to keep the channels open and continue to communicate with information that could help reduce anxiety among employees.

While on one hand, the communication focused on what is the organisation doing to help the employees, it also had the duty to inform and educate employees on the new ways of working from home. From organising sessions on how to set up home offices to using zoom; to online meeting etiquettes; to sessions on reducing anxiety, yoga / exercising at home, how to handle and quarantine packets – the HR and the communications teams worked tirelessly.

  1. Trust: The second phase was that of building trust. This phase coincided with the first phase but picked up the pace once employees regained their composure after the initial panic. At the time when the information was sketchy about how to tackle the virus, and governments and the healthcare fraternity seemed to be failing to deal with the crisis, trust deficit was the default option. Businesses had been impacted across the board, some more than others, and several organisations were forced to announce pay cuts and job cuts. The onus was on the organisations’ leadership to assure employees that they were doing their best to deal with the rapidly changing situation. Several pieces of research have shown that the CEO is the most trusted source of information for the broader stakeholders of any organisation. It was perhaps the toughest test of any CEO’s ability to course-correct given with dramatic upheavals in business models, while also managing the disruptions caused by an overnight shift to WFH and reassure all stakeholders that they were in control. It was also a time when the CEO and the leadership team had to be out there and over-communicate. Employees were forgiving and they accepted the fact that it was a dire situation and the leadership will not have all the answers initially. Therefore, those organisations that were honest and transparent fared much better than those that continued to keep on a mask of invulnerability. For B2B businesses, reinforcing trust with the customers was also a key priority for the communications teams.

Part 2 of this column coming up next week…

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

Pradeep Wadhwa
Co-founder & Principal at Kritical Edge Consulting
Pradeep is a seasoned communications professional, having witnessed both the client side as well as the consultancy side of life (in equal measures) for close to two decades.

Fortunate to be part of building and protecting reputation of leading organisations and brands across a variety of industry verticals, he has recently founded his unique C-Suite Consulting firm, Kritical Edge.

Previously he has worked in leadership roles with ReNew Power and PepsiCo India among other roles.

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