"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw.
In any crisis situation, effective communication has to take the front seat. And if the crisis is a global pandemic, developing and delivering effective communication, customised to the need of the situation, becomes imperative. Crises create uncertainty, speculation, rumours, fear, depression, panic and even chaos. In Pakistan, both the government and the people were slow to react to the Covid-19 crisis. Initially, it was dismissed as another kind of flu. Then a belief was propagated that it only affects the elderly and people with pre-existing illnesses. Then came the contention that the virus cannot survive in hot weather and come summer it will all be over. And still, other disinformation was commonly accepted.
In a crisis, people urgently need accurate and timely information from authoritative and credible sources. If this is missing, speculation and rumours fill the vacuum. And this is what happened. Granted that Covid-19 came out of the blue and no one was prepared for it. Here, it must be noted that more often than not, crises do not suddenly happen; they are issues that are ignored or dealt with desultorily until one day something gives and the issue turns into a crisis. But, even given that Covid-19 came suddenly, the reaction was inordinately delayed. The communications response to a crisis should lay out the facts truthfully, dispel misconceptions, provide reassurance and not least, inform the audience about the measures that are being taken to handle the crisis. Apply this rule to the Covid-19 crisis and evaluate whether the communication by the relevant authorities to the public at large and by companies to their stakeholders met these requirements and to what level. And was that communication delivered timely?
Ten months after the crisis started and a second wave engulfing many countries, the communication needs to evolve to respond to new challenges. What are those? What has changed in this period that corporate leaders need to take into account in their revised communications to their stakeholders and especially their employees? Here are three ways the situation has changed.
Firstly, the dread and fear of the early days has given way to people not caring anymore. They have had enough. In many countries, people are even revolting against restrictions and abandoning basic safety practices. This is a matter of concern as it can make the second wave more intense and longer lasting. Secondly, many people are mentally stressed as the pandemic has meant lost jobs and livelihoods, burgeoning personal debts, domestic tension, disrupted lifestyles and schedules ranging from children’s education to marriages, to travel and more. Thirdly, the novelty of WFH and online virtual meetings has worn off. How many online video conference calls can one take? Some companies have resumed work from the office, but if the infection rates rise sharply in the second wave, one can expect WFH and lockdowns to be in place again. Even now, companies that have resumed work at office are still holding meetings and interacting with external people online. This has resulted in declining motivation and productivity, and the onset of boredom and frustration.
The function of communications is to address these changed realities. The objectives will vary from one organisation to another, depending on the nature of the business, the size of the workforce, the level of negative impact of the pandemic on the business and so forth. However, broadly speaking, the primary objective should be to make people accept that the pandemic is not over and a second wave is upon us, and everyone needs to find the inner strength to cope with this and continue practising safety measures, tedious as these may have become. The messaging should include authentic updates on the progress of vaccine development and emphasise what everyone can do to build up natural immunity through consumption of the right foods and regular exercise.
Communication needs to keep motivation up, counter stress and give calculated hope for the future. People need hope and feel their future is secure. To this end, the messaging can recall good times and past achievements, share future goals with employees and emphasise that everyone’s support is critical in achieving these goals. On the lighter side, the communication needs to recommend ways to vary daily routines and suggest home and family based activities that can be taken up after work. Another part of the communications strategy is to rethink how the messaging is delivered. For instance, the virtual meetings through conference calls involving all employees or large groups of employees resorted to in the preceding months should be replaced by smaller, more intimate group calls of less than 10 people, so that interactivity is higher and everyone is encouraged to participate.
People also need to feel that their company cares for them as individuals. In addition to shifting to small group calls, management should schedule one-on-one calls with employees if all are still working from home or one-on-one meetings if everyone is back at the office. Obviously, for companies with a large number of employees it may be impossible to have such one-on-one calls or personal meetings with each and every employee. For this purpose, the management needs to develop internal leaders to take on the responsibilities of personalised individual interactions with employees. The CEO cannot and should not be the lead voice all the time. Departmental and functional heads need to emerge as leaders, not just to discuss work, but to cascade the motivational messaging. This will not only allow more one-on-one interaction with employees, it will also develop a second tier of leaders, who themselves will be motivated by the satisfaction of motivating others.
More can be done. The idea is that the communication with both internal and external audiences needs to change in terms of content and in the method of delivery. Professional PR agencies are equipped to work out in detail such communication strategies that are customised for each organisation.
Zohare Ali Shariff is CEO, Asiatic Public Relations Network. firstname.lastname@example.org