Nothing has been normal over the last 18 months. Our offices have entered our homes, traditional forums have become digital, and at some point, we have all been on mute. As with innumberable crises in the past COVID-19 has thrust communications, as a function and discipline, into the limelight.
In-house communications teams and external agency partners have been at the top table of management decision making, figuratively, and literally—as part of COVID-19 committees, driving employee engagement programmes, and managing the perceptions of external stakeholders from governments, and regulators to customers.
As an important hub for the region Singapore has been at the heart of the communications maelstrom. 80 per cent of senior communications professionals we surveyed at the end of last year stated that their team or function had maintained or been raised in importance during the peak of the pandemic. Burn-out of teams and employees was highlighted as a major concern.
We are now adjusting to a new normal and the temptation will be to shift back to familiar modes and methods of working. As far as communications is concerned that would be a missed opportunity. COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of good communications and accelerated trends that leaders need to be aware of.
Strategy and Purpose
Professional communications has always been about more than sending out press releases and preparing town hall presentations. Spin with no substance comes across as inauthentic at a time when consumers expect better from organisations and brands.
Good communications teams (in-house or agency) provide leaders with an external perspective, a strong sense of how messages will be received (however they are delivered)—and not just in a crisis. They can help develop, craft, and articulate a clear vision for a company or a brand, and deliver programmes that evidence progress and delivery against that vision.
This has never mattered more—according to research from Gallup Generation Z and millennials, who will soon make up the bulk of the workforce, want to know employers care for employees and are ethical.
Organisations are up for the challenge. It is encouraging that this year senior communicators in Asia-Pacific (APAC) told us that after the initial crisis response to COVID-19 they are shifting focus back to brand building, thought leadership, and reputation management. In other words, powering businesses through and out the other side of this global pandemic, and taking a stand.
We have all got to know our colleagues better due to COVID-19 in ways we hadn’t anticipated. We have seen inside each other’s homes, met family members, and even, on occasion, pets. If a small child were to walk into the background of a BBC interview today nobody would bat an eyelid as they did when Professor Robert Kelly and his family became an instant Internet meme back in 2017.
Employee expectations are changing and the demarcation between work and home has become blurred. Employee communications is less top down, more interactive, digital, real-time, and porous through channels such as Zoom, instant messaging, and social platforms.
When businesses are transformed and business models are adapted to a more digital environment a clear purpose and rationale, and a human touch, are required, especially when hard decisions have been made and are being communicated.
Digital Disruption and Trust
Rapid digitisation has given organisations new channels to engage directly with stakeholders from customers to decision-makers. This is stretching communications teams as never before and requires new kinds of skills and resources. It also carries risks—from social media backlashes to cyber security threats to fake news. In this era of misinformation, dramatic events, and digital noise, it is perhaps unsurprising that traditional media has seen a renewed surge of support.
Who else can we turn to other than trusted information sources to make sense of that that is going on around us? Eight in 10 of the 450 senior communicators from around Asia-Pacific we surveyed identified traditional media brands as the most trusted sources. When it comes to engaging the media good judgement and relationships matter. Eighty-five per cent of communicators report that picking up a telephone or a personalised E-mail are the most effective ways to engage with a journalist compared to blasting out generic media releases.
Communications practitioners, adept at storytelling and messaging, are being pulled in more directions as channels proliferate. Leaders are looking for T-shaped skillsets with deep vertical specialisations coupled with broad awareness of related areas. Freelance support in areas such as digital marketing and video production from the gig economy is often being used to plug the gaps in capability and resource.
Knowing When to do Nothing at All
We often get wrapped up in outputs and measurement—how can we not when so much of what we communicate can be measured? But consider the business impact of the pitfall avoided—the wrong note being struck with consumers on social media channels and going viral, the disappointment of angry shareholders when expectations are missed, or the impact of the misspoken word on relationships with governments and regulators. The art, rather than the science, of good communications is sometimes simply knowing when to shut-up.
COVID-19 has demonstrated—once again—the value of communications in a crisis. Time now to reflect on communications in more normal times—not simply as an insurance policy against disaster—but as a strategic asset that will create value for your business.
Tim Williamson is Managing Director, Asia-Pacific of media intelligence platform Telum Media. He is a former BBC and Bloomberg journalist and managing director of two strategic communications consultancies based in Singapore.