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Corporate communications is vital in the Covid-19 era



THE unanticipated disruption brought about by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has had an untold impact in all areas of our lives. 

Lenox Lizwi Mhlanga

The impact on organisations and businesses has been staggering, disabling systems and operations, and forcing organisations to re-imagine and adjust approaches to fit into the “new normal.”

The fear created by the crisis paralysed organisations and collapsed many. Others are still in denial, waiting, in vain, for the situation to normalise. They just have to wake up and smell the coffee, for things will never be the same.

The new normal requires new business models, new assumptions, or new mind-sets. Strategy has to change. It became apparent that to drive the recovery, organisations ought to review strategies to address the most pressing communication challenges they change.

There is a need to have a re-look at the strategic imperatives as presented in communication strategies fashioned when a crisis was nothing more than a product recall or, at worst, a localised natural disaster.

Communication has gained quite a lot of currency in the last few months since the outbreak. With teams forced to work remotely. The same has also happened to how organisations reach their stakeholders that have gone virtual.

For a profession that was for a long time associated with white-washing and fire-fighting where organisations have failed, public relations, and its broader cousin corporate communications, have come to the fore in focusing on how to present an organisation to all of its key stakeholders, both internal and external.

There is no time when the communication profession has become more strategic to an organisation than now.

This challenges the organisation to have a clear vision for how it will move forward during and post-Covid-19. It is no longer business as usual as alternative ways of reaching stakeholders during the crisis have changed the way we will approach the future forever.

Organisations must adopt innovative ways of communicating with their stakeholders. In response to the debilitating effects of Covid-19, most organisations have been dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age, where tools that make it possible for remote working are fast gaining traction.

Technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, and robotics speed up digital transformation as a way of enhancing virtual networking where social distancing has become the norm.

The World Economic Forum recognises the overall role of digital transformation where it acknowledges the ability to be adaptive, human-centred and inclusive in the way we develop policy and protocols for emerging technologies. Organisations that do not prioritise digital transformation will quickly lose relevance.

How organisations adapt communication to the new normal created by Covid-19 is key to their survival.

McKinsey & Company, a United States-based management consultancy, says that leaders who want to succeed in the digital-led recovery must quickly reset their digital agendas to meet new customer needs, shore up their decision-support systems, and tune their organisational models and technical capacity to operate at the highest effective speed.

In communication, the challenge for the organisation has been to find a voice in a market dominated by Covid-19-influenced noise. The challenge is on how you tell your story in a way that rises above all the noise and being cognisant of the sensitivities around the time we are in and related issues.

In a news environment dominated by anxiety and a gamut of bad news, it is important to think critically about how you tell your story. How does it fit in if you are so determined to tell it, and whether it is the right time or even necessary to tell it in this time? Go by the adage that if you have nothing to say, then do not say it at all. There is always the danger of being seen as capitalising on someone else’s misfortunes.

Another important area of adaption is that of getting to know the news cycle as media has become a critical platform of dissemination of information to both internal and external stakeholders. Media coverage has changed from writing about the outbreak itself to what this means for every aspect of life.

The key is to ensure that your news is relevant, possibly related to important coronavirus information on recovery, the rise of online services and the potential mental health consequences of people staying at home.

While we have been relying on traditional platforms, there already is a trend towards establishing client-owned media and controlling the narrative. Digital platforms such as blogs and social media channels have made it possible for organisations to establish their own newsrooms from where they can create and market content. Ingrained in this is the need to sharpen one’s messaging and ensuring that all the stakeholders on the same page through gaining consensus.

When adapting to the new normal there is always the focus on the long haul. The organisation should activate long-term planning strategies in everything an organisation does. In fact, that is why we are at this point. We never imagined that it would shut the entire world down as it was unprecedented. Those that have failed to adapt, have fallen by the wayside.

Building a brand’s visibility, thought leadership, market competitiveness and reputation requires dedication and perseverance, says Lisette Paras, founder and president of PR agency, Gravitate PR. 

She observes that history has shown that some of the most prominent brands have started and flourished during tough times, including Airbnb, Dropbox and Square.

“If history continues to be our guide, we’ll see more innovations emerge this year–from automation/AI, cybersecurity, digital health (including telemedicine), Fintech and HR tech, among others. Now might be as good of a time as any to build and hone your brand’s story,” Lisette says.

An important aspect of managing any crisis is effective communication, which can be difficult during an “infodemic,” says Elizabeth Ntonjira, the head of global corporate communications at AMREF Health Africa. As the world scrambles to contain the coronavirus pandemic, the role of effective communication is becoming increasingly critical.

We accept that we live in a world where we have access to more information than any previous generation, where fake news and misinformation continue to threaten dissemination.

“Separating truth from outright falsehoods can be a daunting task, especially in the era of social media, and what the World Health Organisation (WHO) has termed the world’s first infodemic—an overabundance of information, some accurate and some not, that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it,” she says.

Organisations have become effective front-liners in the fight against Covid-19 as economies gradually reopen. They become reliable sources of critical information to their employees and stakeholders. While at one point they were victims of disinformation, organisations occupy a unique position to fill any information gaps.

Lessons from the coronavirus outbreak 

Organisations should incorporate community engagement when crisis planning. This builds the much-needed trust required for an organisation to build credibility and resilience when dealing with crises in the magnitude of Covid-19. 
“Part of building this trust includes taking control of the narrative as the (crisis) evolves and recognising that what they communicate is just as important as how it is communicated. There is need to show empathy and care while communicating, and need to ensure access to balanced information,” says Ntonjira.

Related to this is showing corporate citizenship, where the organisation pitches in to help the community deal with the crisis. How organisations act now will determine their reputation. Taking action today to enhance your social impact is a business imperative for tackling the challenges on the horizon.

Chloe Good from Corporate Citizenship says that the #MeToo to #BlackLivesMatter movements have shown that companies need a comprehensive and dynamic approach to strategy to be confident of the issues that matter to their stakeholders and their business.

“Companies that had strong sustainability strategies in place were best placed to meet the needs of their stakeholders and wider society when the pandemic hit. As the long tail of the crisis stretches out, we believe a company’s approach to sustainability will be a key factor in its long-term survival,” she says.

The crisis made it necessary to seriously consider employee wellbeing policies, flexible working and reduced business travel. And while it should not have taken a global pandemic to fast-forward these actions, it is clear we will not return to business-as-usual, Chloe continues.

“Businesses need to re-evaluate their approach to social impact and ensure that business and stakeholder needs, which have changed because of the crisis, are built into ongoing strategies.”

The reality that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the fore today is that companies are being tested, not only on their financial performance but also on how they are communicating and acting ethically today, for example, with employee salaries and benefits, and support to communities to outflank Covid-19. We should not find them wanting as the economy slowly reopens, because stakeholders have very long memories.

Lenox Mhlanga is managing consultant at Sunshine Corporate Communications, a boutique PR agency present in Zimbabwe and South Africa. The agency is primed to provide clients with innovative communication strategic liaison, advanced public relations and risk management services to ensure stability and peace of mind for clients. Email: [email protected] Mobile: 0772 40066


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