Everything was supposed to be different.
At least, many thought that would be the case following years of a global pandemic that shut down businesses, blew up the supply chain and changed how people went about their lives.
Nearly four years after the global health emergency was declared, we all seem to have moved on and it’s business as usual again.
As communicators, that should make us hypersensitive because “business as usual” before the pandemic often meant brand, internal and reputation communications got short shrift. The pandemic flipped that as businesses needed to engage with employees, especially the ones still working on the line or other necessary public functions. Businesses needed to communicate with customers and vendors, to talk publicly about supply chain interruptions or about the issues that cropped up (nearly daily) in that pandemic world.
Necessity drove communications and many executives to rely heavily on their comms leaders and agencies to help keep the business moving forward. The goal was consistent, integrated communications which one analysis called a “step in the right direction to future-proofing businesses.”
When things were “normal,” though, many companies didn’t feel that need. Those businesses viewed communications as a function, not a business driver. Reputation and issues management was a nice idea and something to talk about but was not funded as a priority. Crises happened to other companies.
COVID spurred change and a recent report says more Chief Communication Officers feel they’re now part of the C-suite decision process. That’s great. But buried in that same data is the fact that budgets for most of those CCOs flatlined. Economic uncertainty has companies looking to trim, and communications has always been an easy target. Since June, waves of cuts have hit creative and public relations agencies.
For those of us in the field, it seems like companies have a very short memory.
And that’s why we must become our own staunch advocates. COVID should be an example of how good communicators add value to business. Our work can increase employee engagement and defuse issues before they become, well, issues. While expert reputation support is often difficult to quantify, we can help our own case by clearly explaining results that communicators add to the bottom line. We can do that by:
Too often, we get caught up in our own jargon and don’t communicate clearly in ways people not in the business can understand. “Protecting the brand,” or “crisis response” mean different things to communicators but sound like the same thing to other people.
We should be talking about reputation and issues management (RIM) because brand protection, crises, and even employee engagement really fall under that umbrella. RIM is a business driver, not a functional cost. Whether it’s helping explain business continuity (think supply chain), spotting problematic social media trends through analytics, or guiding difficult conversations, good reputation and issues management practices make companies more effective and efficient.
While “crisis communications” gets the hype, businesses rarely face a true crisis. We add value by helping a company navigate the daily issues and challenges through savvy RIM practices and in conjunction with smart marketing and analytics.
Communicators have a rare advantage in the business world: the ability to step back and take in the bigger picture. The pandemic highlighted this strength in ways most businesses hadn’t before considered. In my own experience with a Fortune 100 company, I spoke daily with medical teams in different regions of the world to understand the latest statistics and regional/local trends and mandates. I had to coordinate with various functions – HR, Sales, Operations – in several different businesses to ensure they and the executive team were all on the same page.
In issues management, communicators can facilitate the flow of information and play traffic cop between functions and business units that are often solely focused on their tasks. That ability to capture, cull and disseminate information, both internally and externally, is a value-add that increases the effectiveness of any organization.
Sometimes the simplest questions – “How do we fix this?” or “Who is responsible?” – are the hardest to answer, intimidating even to put out there. Knowing the right questions to ask, or determining *who* to ask, is a skill that can cut through the clutter to get to the core of the issue.
It’s not something easily learned and it’s why I’m fortunate to work with so many former journalists at Jackson Spalding who spent years honing their ability to deftly – and succinctly – ask the right questions, no matter how difficult. Mining for information is a way for companies to assess vulnerabilities, discover strengths, improve culture, and sharpen their focus on their mission and story.
There were so many hard-learned lessons from COVID, from the fragility of the supply chain to the need for human interaction, that feeling normal again post-pandemic is a welcome relief. We can’t forget those lessons though. That includes communicators resisting business as usual if it means businesses returning to practices that the pandemic clearly showed needed to change. Communications helped companies navigate a global crisis from employee engagement to customer activation. Effective communicators proved their worth as business drivers and that really should make everything different.
If your organization needs recommendations on communicating more effectively with internal and external stakeholders, building reputation or managing potential issues, contact us. Jackson Spalding’s reputation and issues management team, led by Scott Sayres, is here to help.