How has the COVID-19 crisis shown that communications deserves a seat at the c-suite table?

'We're here for you' may be how some brands are choosing to communicate throughout COVID-19, but others have taken more sophisticated approaches. Mumbrella's Zoe Wilkinson speaks with industry leaders about how the pandemic will see communicators rise to the top and claim a seat at the c-suite table.

The COVID-19 crisis has seen some dramatic triumphs and failures of corporate communications.

We have seen supermarkets spring into action, introducing dedicated shopping hours for the vulnerable, additional hygiene and security measures to ensure staff and customers are social-distancing and keeping up constant communications with consumers.

On the other hand, we’ve seen brands simply spread out their logos to reflect social distancing, backtrack on customer policies and endlessly repeat the phrases ‘We’re here for you’, ‘In this together’, ‘Abundance of caution’ and, of course, ‘unprecedented times’.

Communications has long-fought to be more than just the department you turn to when everything is going wrong, so, are they now presented with an opportunity to do just that?

We ask top communications executives:

“How has the COVID-19 crisis shown that communications deserves a seat at the c-suite table?”

Neil Shoebridge, founder and partner of Shoebridge Knowles Media Group, says that great communications need to be proactive and nimble, and the only way to do that is to have a direct line to the c-suite.

“What lies at the core of great communication and reputation management is proactivity. That means having a plan in your bottom drawer for just about every scenario, one that can be actioned fast when needed. Reducing reporting lines and moving your communication professionals up to the c-suite allows for this sort of nimble communication,” Shoebridge says.

“Speed is critical not only in a crisis, but across all points of good communication – and the more knowledge your communications team has, the better placed they are to find opportunities to proactively build your company’s reputation and business… If this information isn’t given to the communications team as it emerges, it may be too dated and the opportunity may be missed, which is why a direct line to the c-suite is critical.”

“A direct line to the c-suite is critical”: Neil Shoebridge

At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, Shoebridge observed that the brands which managed a fast response and original message were the most successful. Research provided by SKMG’s research partner, The Lab, found that Australians were highly aware of brands offering up ‘tokenistic’ messages and just over 20% of people surveyed noticed brands communicated poorly during the period of isolation.

“That was largely a function of repetitive messages being taken late to market,” Shoebridge says.

“We might not have noticed the first brands to mention ‘unprecedented times’, but we certainly noticed the countless brands that followed suit.”

Sarah Trombetta, CEO of Red Havas, agrees that the agility of communications is something that brands should have taken advantage of in the COVID-19 crisis.

“The COVID-19 crisis has been a moment of truth for companies and brands in how well they harness their communications and make the most of this time to connect with their customers in the most meaningful way. The power of comms is that it’s an extremely agile channel that can affect change in real-time,” she says.

“That’s never been more important than during this period but it’s also highlighted how crucial comms is – and should be – to businesses as we move to the world of the ‘new normal’.”

Sarah Trombetta has identified ‘three telling signals that companies are leading with communications at heart’

Trombetta believes that the spotlight COVID-19 has placed on brands across all industries, has led to three telling signs of the value communications hold within a business. The first is how a business has utilised its voices in its response.

“Leading c-suites know that the most meaningful channel for a brand right now is inside the company. Harnessing the voices of the executive bench and employees at large, to bring a human quality to how the brand speaks and behaves, is winning a legion of support from brand loyalists and new consumers,” she explains.

Second is how well businesses have listened to their staff, stakeholders and customers.

“External media, influencer and consumer conversations can be the most potent lens to keep everyone honest and stay ahead of emerging gaps between what their brand does and what consumers expect from them,” Trombetta says.

Finally, she has found that brands which have stayed on the pulse of crisis have pulled off “masterful pivots that put purpose into action to solve new needs that matter to Australians”.

She concludes: “For companies that have struggled to bring communications to the table in a meaningful way it’s not too late but they should be pulling up a seat for the long term to get on the front foot and stay there.”

WE Communication’s executive vice president for Singapore and Australia, Rebecca Wilson, says “the opportunity for communicators to firmly take their seat at the boardroom table has never been more palpable”.

For her, the COVID-19 crisis has provided the next step in the evolution of issues and crisis management.

Rebecca Wilson says COVID-19 has placed new demands on communications

“Issues and crisis management was once something to be summoned on an emergency basis before reverting to a “business as usual” mentality. Fast forward to today, amid a global pandemic, and the picture could not be more different,” Wilson says.

“The unpredictability of the environment in which we live, work, and play has brought challenges and opportunities in how brands meet the constant shifts in stakeholder expectations.”

Wilson asserts that strong communications have never been more important as it sets the tone for how consumers perceive a brand’s COVID-19 response across its business.

“The intersection of risk management, and the deep understanding of stakeholder behaviour, has been powerful during COVID-19 and communication has been a key tool to an effective response. COVID-19 has elevated the importance of communicators to drive sophisticated business responses, to find the right balance between tone and message, and to provide relative calm through accurate, transparent information to audiences in the wake of fear,” she explains.

The extreme impacts the pandemic has had on businesses is also an opportunity, Wilson says, to build resilience within their organisations. This “requires an organisational culture that enables the anticipation, recognition and constructive response to every red flag, every day” which she says comes from having comms in its permanent seat around the boardroom table.

Director of Sefiani Communications, Nick Owens, has dubbed COVID-19 “the mother of all crises”, making it the ultimate test for brands.

“In a crisis, brands and businesses are judged more harshly than at any other time – how a brand communicates, internally and externally, becomes vitally important. The adage that a reputation is hard won and easily lost holds absolutely true,” Owens remarks.

“When the pandemic hit, there may still have been a few companies that did still not include the communications function on the grown-ups table. But it’s a safe guess when confronted with the enormity of the disruption caused by the lockdown, even these organisations would have started fretting about lines of communication to stakeholders.”

‘COVID-19 is the mother of all crises’: Nick Owens

Since the crisis began, Owens and the Sefiani team has worked with brands across hospitality, law, education, cyber security and professional services. Based on the wide-spread business issues they have worked on in response to COVID-19, Owens believes organisations that hold communications in the highest regard are the most successful.

“In our experience business leaders who value the lens brought by communication professionals adapt best in these situations. They know the importance of getting comms strategies and systems in place and they have confidence in the communication specialists to execute,” he says.

“If COVID-19 hasn’t convinced business leaders that communications should sit alongside the c-suite, very little else will.”


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