The role of the communicator has never been more valuable to an organization.
As many companies and groups look to engage employees and external stakeholders with regard to the coronavirus crisis, the communicator has become a key player and is starting to receive long-overdue recognition.
According to a survey from Peppercomm and the Institute for Public Relations, the communicator has been a major resource for the C-suite.
Eight out of 10 respondents say the communication function is “very involved” in communicating internally about COVID-19 and 75% say the CEO is “very involved.”
There is also a positive score for most leaders on this crisis, with 90% saying their leadership team has handled the COVID-19 crisis effectively.
Tina McCorkindale, president and CEO for the Institute of Public Relations, and Steve Cody, founder and CEO for Peppercomm, agree that this crisis has given communicators an extraordinary opportunity to show their value.
“Many communication functions are rising to the occasion and not only proving their value to the organization, but also receiving a new level of recognition within the C-suite,” they shared via email. “Hopefully, this will continue following COVID-19. In terms of demonstrating ROI, the communication function is playing the key role in increasing employee trust within the organization, as well as assuring that external messaging is appropriate to the gravity of the moment.”
Much uncertainty and pain lie ahead for organizations in this crisis, and many communicators have been careful not to overpromise. Fewer than a third of respondents say they have promised not to lay off or furlough employees.
However, there are many messages that communicators do want to share, especially regarding employee health and safety.
Safety guidelines (84%), COVID-19 updates (79%) and new organizational procedures/policies are the top three topics shared with employees, according to the survey. Nearly two-thirds (65%) say their company has communicated with them about mental health. To get these messages in front of workers, communicators are focusing on personalization.
“Nothing beats ‘face-to-face’ engagement with teams, groups, business units and the overall organization,” say McCorkindale and Cody. “In instances where the sheer depth and breadth of global organizations limit face-to-face interactions with the CEO, it is absolutely critical employees not only hear from the ‘corner office’ proactively, but believe the words spoken or shared are empathetic and, critically, authentic.”
That means demanding authenticity and building channels for two-way communication.
“Employees have an intuitive sense of whether the CEO messaging aligns with her/his authentic voice,” they add. “Managers and supervisors are also important channels so making sure they have the right information they can share and get feedback for their employees is critical so listening mechanisms must be built in.”
Nearly all respondents (99%) report using email to connect with employees.
Collaboration and productivity
The survey finds that although the crisis has sparked more collaboration in most organizations, productivity has decreased as workers have switched to home offices and juggle child care and other responsibilities.
However, McCorkindale and Cody note that leaders have been more empathetic and understanding about these issues.
“One of the interesting byproducts of the pandemic is a profound and, in our opinion, an elevated level of caring for the safety and well-being of employees,” they write. “[W]e should think about why our employees are more satisfied, trust more, collaborate more and have higher levels of engagement with the organization. Is it because we are caring more? Communicating more? Shorter commutes? Understanding this will help us lead in the post-COVID-19 era.”
When it comes to the numbers, a normal workday will probably change for many workers. The number of workers who will continue to work from home in the post-COVID era is expected to go up by 10 percentage points, according to the survey.
The survey also says more than three-quarters of employees are currently working from home. We should expect that this will have a profound impact on the future of work.
The return to work
As for businesses that plan to bring employees back to the office, the survey suggests leaders are behind on planning for a successful reopening. Only 10% of communications executives have done extensive planning about a return to normal business operations. (About 42% say they have done “some” planning.)
Plans also differ on how organizations plan to execute their return. One quarter (27%) say they would have a phased return to work, and 12% say they plan to come back all at once.
“Since we’re already seeing some individual states announcing their ‘reopenings’ or being pressured to reopen, it’s critical that CCOs and senior comms leaders tag-team with other members of the C-suite to imagine what the new workplace environment should be,” say McCorkindale and Cody. “We do believe that many senior communications executives are ‘behind the ball’ on thinking ahead, but when one’s world is on fire, it’s beyond challenging to rise above the heat of the moment and project what will be.”
To get your head around future planning, they suggest considering two aspects: the physical and the psychological.
“How is the company best prepared to change the workplace and effectively communicate those changes about the physical space? Second, how are you communicating to ensure employees follow protocols and procedures. Psychologically, do your employees feel safe enough to return to work?”
Staying connected post-crisis
Employee engagement has jumped, as uncertainty about the future and concerns about job security send employees looking for information.
So, how can communicators sustain this engagement once the crisis is in the rear-view mirror?
McCorkindale and Cody stress that leaders can’t return to their old model of operations and except to keep the gains they’ve made with employees. “We believe employee engagement and internal communications are today’s currency of the realm,” they write. “Communication leaders must track, measure and report the significant increases in employee engagement, collaboration and trust now in order to protect, fund and grow the bond in the future.”
Teams that have had resources made available to them during this crisis will continue to succeed only if that investment is made permanent. For internal communications to shine, organizations can’t relegate them to the back burner.
Room for growth
Not every part of the crisis response has been flawless. One area where organizations can improve is on issues around diversity, inclusion and equity, initiatives that still merit keen attention.
According to the survey, only 19% of companies are communicating information on diversity, equity and inclusion during this crisis.
“It’s shocking to see some senior communication leaders lump DE&I into their overall engagement and communication programs when they know people of color in particular have been hit hardest by COVID-19,” write McCorkindale and Cody. “On the other hand, there were some leaders and companies that were very strong in this area and emphasized DE&I is the fabric of their company.”
Going silent on a topic so important can send the wrong message and indicates insincerity on the part of the organization in addressing systemic inequality in the workplace.
“Sadly, it reflects what many DE&I leaders have been saying all along: The PR profession is paying lip service to DE&I,” write McCorkindale and Cody. “Our results reinforce this very embarrassing reality. While some were very strong in these areas, other think DE&I is an add-on when things are going well. Clearly, we have some work to do in this area.”
For more insights on managing through the current crisis, join Ragan’s Crisis Leadership Board.