Carry on communicating

By Wendy Watherston on Monday, 4 May 2020

The new needs of external – and internal - communications

For in-house communication, digital and marketing teams the pressure at the moment will be enormous and there will be many new demands on your time - and thoughts rushing through your heads. But it is also a time to shine and rise to the challenge. To take a leading role and create agile and creative plans to communicate with employees, stakeholders, clients and prospects in order to support the business going forward.

It’s easy to let the fundamentals of good communications slip in a pressurised and fast-moving environment. Providing consistency of message across all channels, being relevant to the audience and being transparent with information. Reassurance is needed, let them know what is going on and what you can offer as support. Timing is of course key; you don’t want to overload people and need to be acutely aware of the current operating environment. However, don’t underestimate how much information people need.

Findings from Kantar’s recent COVID-19 barometer(1) found that globally, 77% of consumers said they wanted more than ever for brands to tell them how they could help in this new everyday norm, Only 8% of consumers expected brands to stop advertising.

Further research from Opinium(2) shows that consumers are more likely to want to hear at least the equivalent, if not more from brands during the current environment, regardless of sector.

Learning from history, back after the 2008 crisis we saw that strong brands, on average, recovered nine times faster than the S&P 500. Here are a few of the things we learnt(3) when communicating with customers:

1. Minimise risk by reducing physical interaction

Your first responsibility during a pandemic of this scale is eliminating opportunities to spread the virus, especially among the most at-risk populations. So, companies have been innovating and introducing digital solutions like online signatures for their clients, so they don’t have to go into branches.

2. Provide practical help to customers in financial distress

Once customers have secured their personal safety, their next concern is often financial. Many people will face income and liquidity issues. Providing flexible solutions is now both a responsibility and a huge trust driver for companies. Financial institutions are not penalising customers who cannot meet payment obligations.

3. Bring joy and support the emotional needs of customers

Many people are forced to stay at home, so companies are acting to make homelife more enjoyable and to also ensure the well-being of their customers. Like games for families who need to entertain their children. Some companies are checking in with their customers to help relieve stress. Others are creating online training courses to help people better manage their finances.

4. Actively shift customers to online channels

Now is the time to invest in your digital communications and find new ways to solve clients’ needs online, like tutorials for banking services. This shift has the potential to dramatically increase online traffic post-recovery.

5. Stay reachable and treat customers with care

Now more than ever, it’s important that customers feel like they can speak to someone. Cigna has established a 24/7 customer-resource-centre specifically to help customers with claims related to the novel coronavirus.

6. Demonstrate care for the community through company values

We have talked a lot about purpose and your reason for being, beyond making a profit. By forming a purpose-driven bond with customers, companies can genuinely demonstrate their care about their customers. One of the best examples of this is when Admiral, decided to take all the savings it had made because there were less accidents on the road, and use that money to support key charities.

Your own team needs you too

Employee engagement is of course a key priority. Providing both reassurance and clear direction for employees is critical and the focus will be in ensuring teams and management are providing enough support to keep employees’ mental well-being and anxieties under control.

They will then better retain their motivation - and ensure their clients have accurate and current information fulfil their needs. Communicating your plans to handle the pandemic will help minimise impact and sharing information and facts in real time will go a long way towards encouraging trust with your clients and customers. In addition, maintaining your company culture and a feeling of connectivity while making sure important information is shared will be fundamental in keeping the business running.

1. Make sure your message is clear

People’s attention spans are short, and they can only consume so much information. Communicating the truly important information regularly, transparently and succinctly and on one consistent channel will increase the chance of ensuring it is heard.

2. Don’t just broadcast

Communications are about a conversation. Ask your people questions and be available to answer theirs. In order to ensure you are supporting your teams it’s important to understand what their concerns are and what they need from you. It’s not just about what you want to tell them.

3. Check in on people: including any employees you have needed to furlough

Everybody will be handling the current situation differently, particularly those who are impacted financially or newly working from home. Some people have young children. Some have college students returning. Some are single parents. Some are all alone. Actively engaging to understand differences in working environments and circumstances is important because it helps increase the feeling of connectivity.

4. Leadership visibility

Leaders need to step up and be present and visible, people want to hear from them and they need to demonstrate genuine empathy with their colleagues. Videos are a popular medium and many leaders are creating low-production videos from their phones.

5. Online team bonding activities

Colleagues would ordinarily be socialising, having fun and bonding in person, there is no reason this should be put on hold during COVID-19. There are lots of creative ways coworkers are staying connected. Many organisations are actively facilitating virtual team building whether they’re having virtual happy hours, quizzes or accelerating their internal social networking.

6. Think ahead and prepare for the new ‘business as usual’

The current situation will undoubtedly change corporate culture and communications forever. Many of the processes and ways of working that have been implemented during this time are here to stay and employees will want and expect to maintain the increased flexibility they were afforded during this time. They will also have benefited from the added attention given to them by leadership and are again going to expect the same level of transparency, communication and investment going forward. Organisations need to recognise this and prepare for it.

External Communications

From a reputational standpoint and as we see businesses left, right and centre dropping clangers, there is a strong temptation to shut up shop when it comes to external communications. However, these circumstances are bringing into sharp relief that it’s not just what you do as a business, but how you are as a business. Maintaining your reputation as a strategic, expert client adviser is key.

While timing and tone are paramount, there is a huge opportunity to get creative and people are crying out for content and commentary that is informative, relevant and most of all positive. For example, as you can imagine, the media are ravenous for stories that are corona-led but with a focus on business: information and insight on how they are responding, and advice they can offer. If they want this information, that means that readers, viewers and listeners want this information and these people are your employees, clients and prospects.

It may very well feel that in the current environment, your planning for campaigns and current thought leadership are potentially no longer relevant. Not so fast, again, being able to get creative and agile in updating, adjusting or repackaging will put you in good stead.

To discuss how your communications and messaging can be optimised for all audiences, contact Wendy Watherston at




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