Effective communication has never been so important
April 29, 2020
As the Pandemic tears into businesses, slashing revenues and highlighting those fixed costs that just will not go away, the temptation for business owners and directors is to hunker down and turn inwards to find a route to survival, while maintaining a stoical silence.
Counter-intuitively, there will never be a time when shouting from the rooftops about your problems and how you are trying to get through the storm will pay bigger dividends.
There are many consumer facing sectors, which have been shut down until the lockdown is eased and pretty much everything except a little token activity has stopped. You might think that there’s nothing to say, but how you maximise communications both internally with your staff and externally with your key stakeholders and your customer base will determine whether you will have a business to re-open when the time comes.
No industry has been harder hit by the virus than hospitality, with pubs and restaurants closed at no notice and now with no certainty about when they might be allowed to re-open or on what basis. But the general media and everyone’s social media timelines are full of great stories about the positive things that hospitality businesses up and down the country. Some restaurants are cooking and delivering meals for key workers, their chefs are doing online cookery lessons or sharing recipes. Pubs are raising money for good causes; they’re conducting online beer tastings and pub quizzes. Theatres are constantly streaming their past performances, while musicians are streaming live gigs direct from their homes.
For less directly consumer-facing businesses, there are still plenty of ways of looking like the good guys in this crisis. Clothing businesses are turning to producing PPE for front line healthcare workers. Manufacturers are making ventilators and much more for the fight against the virus.
Hotels and travel businesses are out there talking about their great plans for the future and, of course, offering discounts to draw trade back in when the lockdown eases. Many hotels have got superb publicity from offering free accommodation near to hospitals for NHS staff who are forced to isolate from their families.
Everyone is being very open about it, though not in any bragging sort of way. The positive messaging is relentless.
It really doesn’t matter whether your staff are still coming together in a socially-distanced environment, working remotely or sadly, temporarily furloughed; you must stay in touch with them and deliver regular and timely news (both good and bad) about how the business is doing in the crisis. There should be no sugar coating and platitudes, just tell it straight. If there are issues, be honest but also share your plans to address them.
The good news is that the various video conferencing facilities have really stepped up to fill the human contact void. People may be self-isolating, but there should be no reason for your staff to feel isolated or marginalised from the firm for which they work.
Another productive strategy for larger businesses is providing a staff contact facility of some sort, providing advice and offering a sympathetic ear for their concerns and issues whilst in lockdown. That creates the ability to generate effective two-way communication, which is essential. Without it, business owners may find themselves sending messaging through controlled internal channels but seeing the responses shared in the wide-open world of social media.
Saying nothing or leaving prolonged gaps in your internal communication will only achieve two things, both of which are undesirable: it will feed rumours of disaster and it will destroy trust. Obviously, there may be some events that cannot be publicised for reasons of confidentiality, but that is no reason to ignore your staff. When all this is over and we return to some sort of new normal you will need them, just as they will need you.
You need to have a plan for maintaining the key relationships on which your business depends, whether it is with important customers, essential suppliers, your landlord, your shareholders if they are not directly involved in the business, credit insurers or, in particular, your lender. In some cases, it could be a regulatory authority. You should take responsibility yourself or where necessary, delegate authority and responsibility for communications with each one of these.
The messaging will vary depending on the nature of the relationship, but once again it must be honest and open. Their expectations need to be managed and what they certainly do not need or want is unpleasant surprises.
Businesses live in the real world, where reputations matter and are at risk moment by moment, especially in these days where social media can be such an unforgiving opinion former. Many businesses cannot hope to communicate directly with all their customers, who are often unknown to them.
This makes positive public messaging throughout the crisis crucially important, whether you achieve this through your website, the general media or on social media. The very worst mistake you can make is to let your brand go ‘dark’ by withdrawing from the world while you wrestle with the undoubted challenges you face.
You also need to devote time not just to being in ‘send’ mode with your messaging, but also to receiving responses and reacting constructively to them, even if they seem critical. Some of the sharpest criticism of businesses currently is being reserved for those who either ignore complaints or pleas for help, or else are too slow to address them because of insufficient resourcing.
Using communications professionals
PR and external communications spend is among the first to be stopped in any financial crisis, never mind one as serious as this. Sadly, too many companies fail to understand the value and the power of good communications. Ironically, many good PR professionals will be available right now at heavily discounted rates, because they must make a living too.
Even if it seems hard to commit to a PR budget in the face of such uncertainty and so much pressure on finances, at least consider it and evaluate the potential benefits. If nothing else persuades you to have this expertise on hand, consider the terrible reputational damage that insensitive decision-making which has then been made worse by awful communications has done already during the crisis to some major household name brands. If you are unlucky enough to get caught up in one of the frequent social media storms being whipped up by judgmental public opinion, you will thank the day you made sure you could ask an experienced PR adviser to help you get through it.
Communications issues are complex and differ widely from business to business. This brief guide cannot answer every question or offer a solution to every situation, but we hope it provides an outline of the major issues and how businesses might best approach them.