In the era of COVID-19, most organizations have focused on resilience: prioritizing the health and safety of their staff, clients and communities; implementing business continuity plans; driving IT systems’ stability; managing liquidity, credit risk and capital; and monitoring discretionary cost and savings. For communicators to be regarded as true strategic advisors among executives, they must address these issues.
Today’s communicators must know how to position the impact of strategic communication, and therefore when to set the agenda versus when to take direction.
Four communication certainties have emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, along with ways communicators have been required to guide the process.
- The world is changing, and communication must make a genuine move from a waterfall to agile approach in execution.
- The need for communication to provide data-driven insights is critical to set an agenda based on facts.
- Managers are playing a more important role than ever in internal narrative and messaging.
- Communication professionals are not strategic advisors because they say they are, but rather when their stakeholders recognize their expertise. This will only happen when communicators influence business drivers in the same manner as other corporate functions.
Zooming in on the fourth point, strategic advisors also know how to benchmark world-class execution, have the correct skills and capabilities to deliver on it and can prove that their strategic direction had a tangible outcome and impact on stakeholders.
Taking Charge of Employee Wellbeing
During the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in its early days, employee wellbeing has been elevated to the top of executive committee agendas. It is a natural fit, given the significant role in supporting employees’ financial, physical and mental health during a trying period. It also is clear that mental wellbeing pressure is mounting, and organizations are moving quickly to ensure proactive programs are in place to reach out to employees.
Similarly, communication has been at the forefront of positioning this corporate narrative. Key messaging is necessary for employees who need support and guidance on corporate processes and the shift to remote working, investors who want to be kept appraised of the financial impact or customers eager to hear how organizations are tackling the pandemic.
Here, however, there has been a split between communication functions that stepped up their operational communication, keeping stakeholders well informed of business plans by taking guidance from key corporate functions, such as risk, compliance, ethics and operations; and those that also provided guidance on strategic business issues. This guidance, in turn, was leveraged as inputs into strategic business planning that are today shaping the future ways of work.
A Data-Driven Communication Strategy
As a practical example from a multinational conglomerate, the organization’s communications team strategically partnered with human capital and risk functions during this period to deliver a robust, company-wide, COVID-19 employee engagement survey. It tested dimensions of wellbeing, communication, leadership, management, risk, remote work, parenting and more.
The survey obtained insights that would influence the rebranding of the company’s wellbeing function, contribute to a parenting program, support operational risk decisions around remote working and rotation planning, flag potential conduct risk, shape the communication narrative and much more.
For communicators, this outcome is a game changer. When communication is in a position to inform business strategy, it creates an important intersection between communication and business. Then, communicators play a leading (rather than a supporting) role in a crisis, giving them the opportunity to help set the agenda rather than be given direction.
Communication Speaks Business Language
In the above example, the communications report provided a number of strategic recommendations to business, based on clinical data obtained in real-time, which could inform whether business strategy should remain on course or be modified in part. Typically, some of these insights would not come from the communication function. However, mature organizations are seeing communication as more central to business decision making.
Here is a look at how the report outcomes shaped the recommendations:
- Help people. The organization should continue with measures to support employees’ physical and emotional wellbeing, as the data showed that financial wellbeing was a trigger point. With this comes potential conduct risk.
- Communicate effectively. Employees indicated the organization provided responsive and empathetic communications at the organizational, leadership and management levels. The communication narrative would be defined by this and other insights from the survey.
- Establish continuity of work. The data showed that although there was an understandable level of anxiety around working from home, employees were resilient and productive. These were key outputs that shaped future workforce management planning around hybrid work arrangements.
- Address workforce pressure points. Data explored workforce drivers to balance stress and productivity, while aligning to other strategic programs underway across the organization and in different markets.
What Did It All Mean?
COVID-19 has been a unique environment, where communication has had a long tail effect on business drivers. There is also an opportunity for communications professionals to shape the future business landscape through informed decisions, by providing the necessary listening architecture for decision making.
The speed of change and decision making has had a direct impact on business performance. Therefore, communication can play a key role in keeping employees informed about these changes, while acting as an agent of change to secure adoption and buy-in to new ways of working across complex federated businesses.
Communication professionals have a choice. On one hand, we can lead a conversation with data and insights about business and help shape decision making that may define business for years to come — and communicate that effectively. On the other, we can take direction and focus on delivering great tactical communication based on how the business guides the organization.
Ultimately, strategic advisors lead. They provide strategic intelligence to businesses and package data-driven insights to shape decisions and operational outcomes. Strategic advisors set agendas — to be known as strategic advisors, communicators must assume this role.