A few weeks in to the Covid-19 crisis, external communications teams have run out of platitudes. They’ve pledged support to the measures in place to contain the virus, assured their clients of their continued service with additional hygiene measures where applicable, communicated any changes in the way they will interface with customers, scenario-planned for messaging in case of lockdown being loosened, tightened, ended or extended, and now it’s a case of ‘hurry up and wait’. The company’s external image is well in hand.
Or is it? I’d suggest that to fully protect brands and company reputations, the focus must turn to internal communications – often the Cinderella of the group communications departments. Now, more than ever, that communication must be top-notch, carefully crafted and targeted, and given whatever support it needs.
I spend a lot of my time reviewing company narratives – key messaging, in other words – and those worthy documents that companies love to workshop and fine-tune and spread widely on corridor and cafeteria walls: their ‘vision, mission and values’.
Those documents all look pretty much the same, in essence. They throw around words like ‘passion’ and ‘integrity’ and ‘sustainability’. And they almost always have a dedicated paragraph to the value inherent in their people, their employees. How those employees are the foundation of the business, or are the heart of the business, or some such phrasing.
Once they’ve send the document to every ego that needs a look-in, and run it past consultants like me, it’s finalised. And then it’s up to their internal communications teams to get the word out, make sure all employees are ‘aligned’, are ‘living the values’.
Until a pandemic strikes.
What does this have to do with internal communications? Well, those teams are now at the coalface of ensuring that your values don’t just talk about integrity. Now is the time to prove that you – the people at the top of the company food chain – are ‘aligned’ and ‘living the values’ you espouse.
Because internal communications people are now tasked with keeping employees up to date about changed working conditions, potential job losses, potential pay cuts, and all the myriad ways companies are trying to survive.
And if you don’t get the tone and language exactly right, all the key messaging documents, and values workshops and scenario planning won’t help you at all. Right now your employees – that very valuable resource you praise in your values – are afraid. They’re afraid of what this disease means for their loved ones, their work and their income. They are cooped up at home, surveying their debts and bills and expenses, trying to home school their children, and keep their head above water. And if you don’t live your values and treat your people as your most important resource, those values are going to come back and bite you in the ass.
Remember that a reputation takes a long time to build, and mere moments to destroy. And nothing will destroy your reputation like employees who’ve been poorly treated out there, in the wider world, talking about you to their friends and family, and outing you on social media.
Yes, I understand that companies are not bottomless financial pits. But this is the time to act in line with your values, and communicate accordingly. It’s internal communications’ time to shine. And how should you be communicating? Off the top of my head, some ideas:
- Be open and frank with your employees: talk to them as if they’re adults, because they are.
- Treat them with respect and empathy, and focus on solutions.
- Don’t treat the cleaners one way and the executives differently.
- Don’t hide the truth in corporate bullshit and legalese designed to confound and alienate.
- Choose your words with care – don’t be sensationalist in the language you use.
Because lockdown isn’t forever. You will need those same people to come back to work, roll up their sleeves, and start rebuilding. You’ll want them on your side.
And if you don’t treat them as valuable now, don’t expect loyalty, engagement or even productivity when they return. And certainly don’t expect that your reputation – or your values – will remain intact. You’ll have a whole lot more to rebuild than just your company, if you don’t get your communication right.