Covid-19 reveals the true value of corporate communication

About the author

Charlotte Greaves works as a communicator for JN Bentley which operates in the construction engineering sector. She is studying towards an Msc in Corporate Communication at Leeds Beckett University.

Covid-19 is like nothing organisations or communications professionals have seen before. A new, difficult challenge.

Although we can liken the Covid-19 pandemic to others like SARS and Ebola. This feels very different. Our response can be likened to the 5 stages of grief. This account of my experience within my own organisation explores the similarities and highlights the learnings for organisations and communications practitioners in light of Covid-19.

Coping with grief involves five key stages.

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

The personal and business response to Covid-19 is eerily similar.

Denial: Origins and murmurings (January 2020)

When the first mention of novel coronavirus surfaced, the focus appeared to be on ‘where did it come from?’. As it was a type of virus – just a different strain – that already existed, the biggest concern was in its animal origins. Did it come from a snake, a bat, a dog? Who knows?

As for organisations, the questions being asked were ‘what’s the impact on manufacturing and supply?’. For us as a business, the biggest concern was how our supply chain would be impacted. With a number of fixtures and fittings for pipework sourced from Chinese suppliers, our question to the supply chain was ‘what does this mean for supply and potential delays?’.

Our Procurement Team were, as always, in regular contact with suppliers that sourced materials from China to judge the reality of the situation. At this point, they told us ‘we’re not seeing an impact, it’s business as usual.’ So, as I’m sure many other businesses did, we continued to half-heartedly follow the situation in the media, but brushed off the potential for a severe impact.

In a very British way, I think the mentality was ‘it’ll all blow over.’ To that end, there was no mention of Covid-19 in any corporate communications. But we know now that we were naive to ignore it.

Anger: Business as usual? (February 2020)

For a while, Covid-19 seemed fairly contained in China. Everyone across the world, I think, looked on unencumbered, witnessing the panic, despair and the deaths that the virus brought without much of a second thought. But as a business and as a country, as we hadn’t yet seen any real impact, we continued to naively assume it was something that couldn’t possibly reach us. Our suppliers kept telling us they were fine; they’d not seen any impact yet. A few shipments had been delayed, but nothing catastrophic.

So, it was pretty much business as usual.

As a business, we issued a couple of communications to employees across the business – as I’m sure everyone did – acknowledging the situation, asking our site teams to engage in more proactive planning (although this was already a fundamental part of our strategy, so we weren’t really saying anything new or ground-breaking) to minimise the risk of delays within the supply chain hitting our sites and really affecting programmes.

Without seeing a physical impact, it was difficult to really understand the scope of this ‘thing’ and just how much it could impact businesses.

Bargaining: This might actually be a problem

After China announced the lockdown of the city of Wuhan the worldwide impact started to show. We made a U-turn in perspective from ‘it’ll blow over’ to ‘this might actually be a problem’ with the threat moving closer to home.

From an organisational stand-point, we saw growing delays from Chinese suppliers. 2-3 week initial delays shifted to more like 8-12 weeks, affecting a handful of our sites. But again, the impact wasn’t so huge that works would stop, it seemed more like a frustration and an inconvenience than a real problem.

As I learnt from one of our Procurement Team, manufacturing and industry in China is highly segmented with different types of product manufacturing and industries generally concentrated in one area of the country. Looking into where the fixtures and fittings that our supply chain sourced from China, the area of the country that they came from seemed quite a distance away from Wuhan. This suggested that, yes we were likely to see procurement delays with a major city in the country locked down, but not to the extent that it would lead to works halting.

It felt like everyone was still second guessing themselves and the situation. This could be a problem. But is it? What do you think? What should we do? Should we be worried? The cogs were turning and the worries beginning to show in our mindsets. The message of our corporate communications began to become muddy, we had to acknowledge the situation, but without sight of a clear impact, they lacked urgency. We were underselling Covid-19. We were probably wrong to do so, but the potential impact was still unknown, without any real certainty, what should we say?

Depression: All hands (and sanitizers) on deck! (March 2020)

The turning point for many people and businesses I think, was when the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in ski resorts in Europe. It was getting too close to home. The idea of a virus thousands of miles away in China seemed such a distant threat, but as that threat travelled across waters and countries, it felt much more real.

The panic and anxiety mentality began to set in.

Luckily for us as an organisation, we benefited from the close relationships with our supply chain who, at the first murmurings of Coronavirus began to stockpile essential items that they knew would likely be in demand and which we needed to keep sites running safely. Things like PPE, masks and hand sanitizer were still available from our key suppliers so we upped our orders in anticipation of further shortages.

All of a sudden, and as the European cases rose and the first deaths were reported, we were producing hygiene posters and setting up makeshift ‘hand sanitizer stations’ around the office.

The next few Covid-19-related communications we issued to the business exhibited a tone of serious concern and echoed the messages from the World Health Organisation on how to maintain good respiratory hygiene. We continued to emphasise the importance of good planning and early engagement with the supply chain to prevent lengthy delays and urged our teams to source local suppliers instead.

Then the perspective changed. You could notice it in subtle behaviour: joking about singing ‘happy birthday’ twice while washing your hands, but actively doing it because anxiety was growing.

As the situation developed over the coming month, Europe was named the epicentre of the outbreak and a sense of dread spread across the country. For us, communications became more frequent, more detailed and more specific: how to wash your hands; what to do if you have symptoms; travel restrictions. We were trying to keep up with advice from the WHO, the Government and the industry.

Coronavirus, Covid-19, China, lockdown, cancelled flights and holidays were the focus of probably 90% of conversations in the office. We knew what was coming, we looked at the situation in Italy and Spain and although we didn’t want to believe that was a possibility for us, I think subconsciously most people recognised the signs, they knew.

Monday 23rd March, 5pm (ish), the UK Government announces lockdown measures. It’s official.

I don’t think it was too big of a surprise, but shocking, nonetheless. There had obviously been murmurings of an impending lockdown of some kind with the government already urging people who could to work from home in the days preceding the announcement. But, without a fully official ‘lockdown announcement’, there were still a lot of unknowns. With the announcement made on a Monday evening, Tuesday morning was go go go for ours, and I imagine many other businesses, as quick decisions had to be made. An early board meeting which lasted until the early afternoon was the time needed to scope out a plan and a response.

At that moment, the importance of an internal communications team was significant. It was our job to take the outcome of that board meeting and translate it into a company-wide communication that reassured and informed the workforce on the plan going forward. Getting this right was crucial.

Updates were issued daily, sometimes twice daily. What does Covid-19 and lockdown mean for the business, will we be okay? How will be cope with working from home? What will protocol on site be? How do we implement social distancing? How do we work effectively from home? What is Microsoft Teams? What about our jobs and profits?

Corporate communications had to cover a whole range of topics as people questioned everything and tried to make sense of the situation. Our small communications team were working non-stop to cultivate clear messaging, working with senior management to understand the commercial impact and how to explain this in a way that prevented panic and upset. The business could survive, our work in the water sector was crucial, our clients and communities needed us to keep clean water flowing, waste water treated and protect homes from potential floods. Works wouldn’t stop, we wouldn’t stop, we just had to make some changes.

In the first few weeks of lockdown regular communication was vital. Updates were being issued daily, and key messages delivered via podcasts from our Managing Director.

It was a turning point for our Communications Team I think, we were able to without pushing, embrace this not-so-new media and way of communicating with our workforce, especially those on site. It allowed the business to see how important good communication was. It shone a spotlight on us, but in a good way, highlighting and allowing people to see the value in our role and purpose.

Without us, how would they know what was happening, a haphazard email update from senior management titled ‘memorandum. Maybe? Probably. We were really showing our worth and the business was recognising that.

Acceptance: The new normal (April 2020)

Going through grief normally takes months, even years, but with Covid-19, the move to acceptance was fast-tracked.

Now, over a month into lockdown home working, social distancing, video calling, over-cautious hand washing is the new normal. We’ve done it, we’ve finally accepted that this is our fate. Corporate communications now, whether internal or external are mostly portraying messages of ‘this is the new business as usual’ and ‘we’re coping – thanks to all our employees, supply chain and clients.’

The focus for communication now, as people have settled (mostly) into working from home life and extra social distancing measures which generally just make most things take longer, is ‘this is the new normal, let’s get on with it, we’re all in this together.’

Obviously, wellbeing and mental health support has a key role to play, for businesses across the world. Businesses and their leaders need to be there for their employees, showing they care and making the support they need available and easily accessible. For now, communication professionals’ key role is to provide carefully crafted communications that provide reassurance, instil a sense of stability and promise of positive prospects for the future to keep morale high and businesses going.

Consistency, honesty and transparency is now more important than ever, for all the fake news and mixed messages circulating the media, organisations need to be clear, direct and truthful. Employees need to know exactly what the situation is, what it means for them and how it is impacting the business. Pay cuts? Furlough? Downsizing? Our business is experiencing all of those things. To provide reassurance our Managing Director is recording almost weekly podcasts – the content a mixture of formal updates and responses to frequently asked questions from concerned employees.

As communications professionals, our role is to ensure these communications demonstrate honesty and sincerity. That they provide a clear picture of how Covid-19 is impacting the business and the steps that it is taking to protect not only its future survival but employee job security.

Covid-19: the true value of corporate communication

What does this mean for corporate communication?

The pandemic could be considered a turning point for corporate communication and PR as an industry and as a strategic discipline.

Businesses and executives have (or at least should have) come to realise the true value of corporate communication, both as a key strategic function and a core business activity. Communications professionals have more than shown their worth to their organisations, providing a vital strategic advisory role, asking and answering key questions to managing stakeholder relationships and protect reputation: What do our employees need to know? What do our employees need to hear? How can we reassure them? How can we protect them and the business?

Since Covid-19, clear and consistent messages has never been more important. Despite the situation changing almost every hour, definitely every day, transparency and honesty has been and should always remain fundamental to any organisation’s communication strategy. One thing I think organisations should learn from Covid-19 is the value of holding their hands up to say, ‘we don’t know what’s going to happen, but we promise that we are doing our best to protect our employees, our business and the country in the best way that we can.’ Admitting anxiety and a sense of vulnerability isn’t something I think we should judge organisations for. They are as much trying to muddle through and navigate all the uncertainty as much everyone else is.

We could argue in some respects that organisations are human, they have values and are vulnerable in a crisis. They don’t have superpowers; despite the way we see the big industry players exert their dominance and influence in their industries. They and we are all in this together. Effective communication will always be vital to their survival; to maintaining employee loyalty in times of crisis and to protecting reputation by being a voice of reassurance and pillar of support for their stakeholders, their industries and their country.

Organisations can no longer ignore the importance of corporate communications and practitioners. For all the debate around whether PR and communications is an industry or a discipline, an add-on or a separate business function, a ‘nice to have’ or a necessity, Covid-19 has proved that it is an essential management function. No less, one that should be driven from board level, with directorship representation and support from the rest of the organisation. It should be recognised and treated with the same respect as HR or Finance. It too has a key role to play in protecting the future success of an organisation. Its purpose extends to all facets of any business – from employee engagement, to marketing and brand awareness, to business development strategies and crisis management and response. With a seat at the top table, practitioners should always be in the know and involved in shaping and executing all strategic level decisions.

I hope that in the aftermath of Covid-19, organisational leaders take a step back and re-evaluate their support and investment in their corporate communication/PR functions. I hope that for those practitioners whose organisations were yet to realise their true value, have now seen that and show them respect they have earned and deserve. I hope that from this, new, powerful communications strategies are written and crisis plans revisited in light of the learnings from Covid-19. I hope that in future board meetings, communications practitioners are invited, are listened to, asked questions, and most importantly, they are heard.

Organisations cannot escape communications. They need it, they need us and we them.