Everywhere and everything is Coronavirus. Which is understandable, given how it’s changing every part and place of our world. But I wanted to talk about Public Relations/Communications and what this means for all of us.
The advent of the Coronavirus may be a business boost for some, but it be harder times for many in the industry. Here’s my basic run-down of what we should all expect.
Increased Demand for Crisis Comms and In-House People
If you’re working as a crisis communications consultant, you should have already had dozens of requests coming in for support (my general view of crisis comms is if you’re asking for help during a crisis, then it’s usually too late).
What’s fascinating is client-side demand for communicators. I’m seeing many government entities looking for senior people. My feeling is they’ve been blindsided by this, and they have little to no crisis planning. This is especially true for internal communications.
Prepare for Drastic Budget Cuts
Budgets are going to be cut, and agencies will feel this soon (I’m sure many already are). Contracts won’t be renewed, and clients will want to reduce the scope of work. I know the argument about PR being more cost effective than marketing, but this won’t have much of an impact on business leaders who need to save money for business continuity planning.
The Opportunity and the Challenge
It’s amazing to see how many companies have my details. I’ve received over 200 emails from companies, all listing what’s happening to the business. Everyone is asking questions, and this is a huge opportunity for communicators to support on messaging and positioning.
However, there’s a caveat here. Things are moving so fast that positions and messages can change overnight, especially for certain industries. I’ve seen senior communicators praise what their country is doing for the public one night, only for the government to announce a closure of its borders in the morning. Communicators have to be extra careful about positioning/messaging right now, and ensure that whatever is being conveyed is actually being put into practice.
We AllNeed Support
Whatever your role and your activity, you’ll need support. None of us have gone through anything like this before (SARS/MERS were the closest examples, but they were still regional). We will all need help in terms of what we are doing. And we will also need mental support.
So many people are relying on us to help them understand what is happening and what they need to do. Let’s do more to support one another. I’ve been encouraged by what regional and global associations are doing. It’s incumbent that all of us reach out to friends and colleagues in the industry to check on one another, and be there to listen and to help. This also includes giving to financial assistance programs run by the likes of the CIPR.
I want to wish you all the best of health right now. Stay well, stay safe, and stay the course. We will prevail.
I’ve watched over the past couple of weeks as the crisis around the Boeing 737 MAX has grown. Before that, it was Huawei and the suspicion in many Western capitals that the Chinese telecommunications firm was in a position to either spy on or act in favor of the Chinese government through sharing data collected through its network equipment. Before that, there was the McKinsey sagas in South Africa and Saudi Arabia respectively.
As a communications professional, it’s been fascinating (and painful) to watch events unfold. But one thought is stuck in my mind – is there a common thread to all of these events? And is that common thread an internal culture which is neither diverse or inclusive enough to understand and tackle issues before they become crises?
Let’s take Huawei, whose story has been covered in depth by a number of exceptional writers and features (check out Arun Sudhaman’s 4,000 word piece on the Holmes Report website). Huawei is a typical Chinese-headquartered multinational, with senior management being predominantly Chinese nationals. This has proved problematic for Huawei’s understanding of markets such as the US.
“There was always a fundamental lack of trust in non-Chinese. You offer guidance, and are regularly second-guessed,” Huawei’s former US public and government relations department, William Plummer, told the Financial Times. Plummer published a book last September in which he explained how senior local staff in foreign markets were regularly excluded from key decisions whilst Chinese executives second-guessed senior management in local markets out of fear of the company’s founder, throwing into turmoil into the company’s handling of PR and lobbying outside of China.
While McKinsey’s management is more diverse in nature, it could be argued that a an over-aggressive culture and a lack of local understanding resulted in the consultancy giant making one of its biggest ever mistakes. To quote from the New York Times:
McKinsey admits errors in judgment while denying any illegality. Two senior partners, the firm says, bear most of the blame for what went wrong. But an investigation by The New York Times, including interviews with 16 current and former partners, found that the roots of the problem go deeper — to a changing corporate culture that opened the way for an aggressive push into more government consulting, as well as new methods of compensation. While the changes helped McKinsey nearly double in size over the last decade, they introduced more reputational risk.
The firm also missed warning signs about the possible involvement of the Guptas, and only belatedly realized the insufficiency of its risk management for state-owned companies. Supervisors who might have vetoed or modified the contract were not South African and lacked the local knowledge to sense trouble ahead. And having poorly vetted its subcontractor, McKinsey was less than forthcoming when asked to explain its role in the emerging scandal.
McKinsey’s former managing partner told the New York Times that the firm had a “bit of a tin ear” when it came to the initial response. David Lewis, executive director of Corruption Watch, a South African advocacy group, told the NYT that: “For the scale of the fee, they were prepared to throw caution to the wind, and maybe because they thought they couldn’t be touched.” For me, there’s the feeling that the internal culture led McKinsey to make the wrong decision and down a path that would become the biggest crisis in the firm’s history.
Finally, there’s Boeing. The airline manufacturer is struggling with a crisis that has grounded worldwide its latest jet, the 737 MAX, after two crashes which share a number of similarities. The first crash happened in Indonesia last October, with the loss of 189 passengers. Following the second crash, this time in Ethiopia in March, Boeing was asked why more wasn’t done to fix the faults found to be responsible for the first crash?
In crisis communications, the most important action is post-crisis, and communicators are told to work with the organization to ensure that lessons are learned, solutions are found, and trust is re-built. This didn’t happen with Boeing – the software fix for the plane’s flight system has yet to be completed, and relatives of those who died in the first accident have questioned Boeing’s response.
Vini Wulandari, sister of one of the ill-fated Lion Air flight’s co-pilots, said that the Ethiopian crash confirmed the suspicions that she and many of the victims’ relatives had about the MAX 8 being a “defective product”.
It’s hard not to be swayed by the argument that uncompromising internal cultures are to blame for poor decision-making; too many similar voices, too few diverse views and an inability to listen have been a cause in each of these crises. That’s why proper inclusion matters, at all levels, as well as an ability to seek out differing viewpoints, especially from outside the organization. As communicators, we have to play a role in promoting both in our workplaces.
I’d love to hear your views on these crises. What’s your view? Message me, or leave a comment.
Influencers will cause more crises – Consumer brands are working with an increasing number of influencers. These people aren’t celebrities, who are often media-trained. All of us have the ability to go online in a matter of seconds. Add that to a significant following and brand endorsements, and you can except more situations will happen which will burn brands.
Brands need to act quickly – The lack of response from some of the brands who have a relationship with Sondos AlQattan was striking. Despite both social media mentions and media inquiries, some brands just didn’t respond. I’d understand if the delay were a day or two, as this is the Middle East and regional offices often feel the need to go back to corporate HQ for advice and guidance. However, two weeks is inexcusable. It harms the brand, and in the eyes of consumers it makes companies look negligent at best, complicit at worst. There’s two words all communicators need to know – brand safety.
Consumers want brand clarity – Some of the initial brand responses were wishy-washy. To quote one brand, a spokesperson said, “[the brand] does not support or align with the recent statements made by Sondos AlQattan.” What does this even mean? Will you stop working with the person, or not? That’s the question. I’ll repeat a simple mantra here – communications is 90% what you do, and 10% what you say. This was a fail, and it was reflected in the headline above. Is that really how the brand’s communications team wanted their stance to be perceived? I’m assuming not.
Consumers care about brands working with Sondos AlQattan today – I was also asked about a brand that I work with, which had once worked with Sondos AlQattan. I can’t think of a beauty brand which hasn’t worked with her, given her 2.3 million followers and her focus on makeup. However, consumers online only care about those brands who are associated with Sondos AlQattan today.
Brands can come out of this positively – I initially felt for those brands who were associated with Sondos AlQattan at this time. Even though I’ve talked about background checks, there was no way that any of them could have foreseen this crisis. However, what is memorable is that the brands who came out first with a clear position have been viewed positively by those who have been angered by the statements made by Sondos AlQattan. Consumers have felt as if these brands have listened to their concerns and acted upon them.
Always remember your employees – One aspect of this which has been rarely mentioned is the internal communications aspect. May companies operating in the Gulf are diverse in their employee hiring, and I doubt any of the brands who are working with her don’t have Filipino nationals on their books. How do these employees feel about the stance their companies are taking? There’ll be a good deal of both anger and sadness among the employees of brands and distributors who are caught up in this sorry situation. I only hope that the internal communications is clearer than the external piece (the narrative should be the same here in any case, given that many employees will be following this story externally).
That’s it from me for now. I hope I’ll be able to resume blogging on another subject during the weekend. For now, good night!
The research looked at a number of key areas, and I’ll outline the key findings below.
The Value of Communications
Although the value of communications as a central business operation is implicitly accepted by CEOs, many communications directors still need to make a more convincing ROI case for the impact of their own work.
CEOs are still uncertain that the company’s social media activity is driven by either a strategic purpose or a clear sense of the desired returns.
Reputations are more fragile than ever. CEOs frequently see this as the key value point provided by the communications director.
“We see a corporate communications director as the builder of the brand value proposition, the custodian of the corporate reputation – not in a reactive way but proactively. In order to sell our products and services, increasingly we first have to sell the company. Whether it’s government giving you incentives, or it is customers buying because they trust you. Unless you’ve got a meaningful brand proposition you can’t get off first base.
A strategic communications director understands that and understands that’s their role, and it really ought to have as much value on the balance sheet as other assets of the business because any strategic move will create stress points in the brand proposition that need to be managed.” David Lockwood, CEO, Laird PLC
Strategy: Is Communications Trusted
Communications directors are frequently involved in strategy creation; almost always at least with some input.
The Majority of CEOs actively involve the communications director when there is a demonstrably ‘communications-centric’ issue.
Three core strategic viewpoints that communications directors bring to the discussion: how to translate the strategy into content and channels; and the reputational rewards and risks of strategic decisions.
CEOs from multinationals see communications’ input more broadly and progressively – as a vital strategic voice in all business decisions, especially from the perspective of reputation and brand.
“I think it’s obvious that a communications professional needs to be closely linked to the strategy because what they work on – formulating the communications and regulatory environment – is of strategic importance. So communications and public affairs needs not just to be ‘part’ of the company strategy but actually linked to the strategy – wired into the board and well resourced. If it’s an afterthought you might as well save yourself the money and not do it.” Wim Mijs, CEO, European Banking Federation
All Change – The New Communications Culture
The digital revolution has brought arguably even more significant changes to the approach and culture of communications than to the core skills of the job.
The ‘message control’ model is over. Key challenge: communications professionals must somehow now find a new way to create alignment among audiences without ever dictating to them.
Authenticity and transparency are the essential tonal cues today – otherwise your communications will be dismissed out of hand.
Audiences expect evidence of a new type of business model – socially responsible, publicly responsive, democratically inclusive.
“We’ve noticed a big and increasing demand for transparency. Our consumers and stakeholders at Arla want to know where their food is coming from. They want transparency in the supply chain. And I would say that the balance between a ‘communications’ approach to stakeholder engagement and a ‘marketing’ approach is shifting in favor of communications. In my business, that’s manifested by an increasing preference for having very honest, authentic, transparent conversations, and moving away from grand claims, mass advertising and so on.” Tomas Pietrangeli, MD, Arla Foods
The Challenge of Filtering in an Age of Noise
Discernment and filtering have become core skills – the ability to select from a vast and noisy information flow what is of actual value to the business.
Communications professionals need to rise above the manias and mass panics the online world can create, providing a cool head in a crisis.
A key, proactive part of filtering is to anticipate major disruptive events coming down the pipeline and to have a plan of action for how to deal with them.
“I don’t think anyone’s figured out quite how corporate communications works in a world where social media is on the scene before you are. Trying to control the message is really tough in that environment, of course. But it’s the speed with which other people out there react – with real-time messaging before you’ve even had a chance to get your messages out and establish the facts.” Mark Tanzer, CEO, ABTA
The Need for True Leadership
Core technical skills are still important; they must now be supplemented by more core business skills.
CEOs want more than support, counsel or executive ‘translation’ services. Businesses now need true leadership from communications directors.
Proactive endeavour is the critical element – delivering new business growth, rooting out commercial opportunities, driving change internally.
“I find that communications people should be closer to the business. They should be able to understand the company figures properly – to understand the business, but also where it’s heading and what issues it’s going to face. In general, if communications people have sufficient insights in the business, I truly believe they are able to generate more value.” Paul de Krom, CEO, TNO
The Future: A Profession in Revolutionary Change
There’s no key findings here (I’ve highlighted the capabilities required by CEOs today in the image at the beginning of the article). However, I do want to pull up one last quote, as it’s particularly apt to the Middle East, where we have an issue with speaking truth to power and instead focusing on political maneuvering inside the organization.
Before that, I’d like to say thank you to the VMA Group for this thought-provoking report, especially the International Association of Business Communicators EMENA board member Willem de Ruijter, for handing the report out to IABC EMENA and pushing this onto the agenda.
“The communications director works in the same room in the building as the secretary of the board – in fact we are all now on one floor, we do not have separate rooms anymore. S/he has full access to everything, no restrictions. S/he is actively involved and is asked to stimulate and to give feedback. Her/his message should be frank when required… and provocative too. S/he needs to be able to tell a senior leader who has worked at KPMG for 25 years that he or she does not possess the correct KPMG vision. That takes a certain character.” Albert Röell, CEO, KPMG NL
This ebook will help communicators understand the how, what and why of internal communications and what it means for their own work.
For far too long, we communicators haven’t done enough to communicate what we do and why we do it. We haven’t put the day job to use when talking about our own value.
With the help of groups such as IC Kollectif, this is changing. The IC Kollectif’s founder Lise Michaud launched an initiative to bring together communications from across the globe, to talk about different aspects of internal communications to help others understand what we do, how we do it, and why.
The result of Lise’s efforts in persuading thirty communicators is an ebook. Named Disrupting the function of IC – A Global Perspective, the ebook is free and covers a wide range of topics, including Changes and Challenges in Internal Communication, the Skills and Knowledge of Internal Communication Professionals, the Impact of Technology on The Profession, the Leadership Role of IC Professionals, Employee Advocacy, the Convergence and Integration of Communication Disciplines, Collaboration Between Internal Communication and Other Disciplines and the Future of the Profession.
I want to draw on the inspirational foreword to the book. Written by Anne Gregory, who has devoted her professional life to promoting the communications profession, the foreword sums up why internal communications matters, now more than ever.
Not only is [organizational life] getting less predictable and the issues that have to be grappled with more slippery, but organisational form is changing too. Companies like Uber and AirBnB are totally different from traditional companies and their disruptive influence means that more traditional, established companies are having to respond in radical ways. Governments, too have to re-engineer the way they are interacting with citizens and this requires huge internal change programmes in the public sector. People want a level of constancy when all around is changing. This is driving a huge focus on organisations reexamining their purpose and values in ways that provide meaning for people who are not only coping with huge organisational change, but who are experiencing all the lack of certainty and turbulence that is present in the world. Organisations are a point of stability for many and at the heart of this is IC. For all these reasons internal communications has come of age, and not before time.
That this volume is available free is testament to the commitment of these authors of IC Kollectif to share their work and thinking widely for the benefit of the global internal communication community. For this, our professional community is deeply grateful.