Communicating during COVID-19
This sixth session in Emperor’s ‘Keeping communications out of lockdown’ series discussed the challenges and priorities for engaging with three of your key stakeholders: employees, investors and customers.
Communication has never been more important. Businesses are facing an incredible number of opportunities and challenges – including around climate change, purpose, culture, strategy and performance, social impact, and resilience and recovery – and meaningful engagement with key stakeholder groups is essential.
Hosted by Darryl Mead, Emperor’s Head of Employee Experience, Claire Fraser, Head of Reporting and Cam Gunn, Head of Digital, the session offered five principles for communications during COVID-19:
1. Be active – ensure you communicate in some way and acknowledge the current situation
2. Be empathetic – get the tone right
3. Be consistent – same message to different groups with regular updates
4. Be joined up – reflect the strategy of the business and ensure people understand why you are doing what you are doing
5. Be distinctive – get your message across to ensure it is actioned and remembered
But alongside this, communication with each of your stakeholder groups requires nuance to address their specific needs. Our experts have offered their advice for talking to employees, investors and customers.
Right now, people and culture are at the top of the agenda for all businesses. Previous challenges, such as building trust, embracing digital or bringing people together, have been all but removed amid incredibly rapid change, putting internal communications to the fore. A recent survey from the Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC) to 500 internal communicators revealed 83% feel the current crisis has positively impacted trust in communication and 76% feel the current crisis has positively impacted trust in leaders. Employees are the heartbeat of any organisation and now is time to dial up the focus on communication.
From the IoIC’s survey, the top three messages to employees are focused around remote working and business continuity; public health information; and driving positivity in uncertain times.
Digital pros and cons
We have all had to embrace digital, with video the most effective channel for communication during this period. However, as the time we spend in front of a screen has increased significantly, it comes with its challenges – particularly video fatigue and the strain of calling on much of the non-verbal communication we would previously have put to one side. We’ve also seen chat platforms such as Slack and Yammer come to the fore.
We need our leaders to be more credible, visible and trustworthy than before. We have seen a rise in ‘ask me anything’ sessions with employees, while others have been doing informal ‘chitchats', and many are using external channels for what would have previously been internal communications. Cross-departmental and joined-up teams have also developed as we see brand, communications and investor relations teams working as one.
Some recent examples include Shell CEO, Ben van Beurden, who shared a video on LinkedIn outlining how COVID-19 is likely to impact the business; AON, which shared a COVID-19 Communications Plan on its website; Slack CEO Steve Butterfield used Twitter to thank his employees and encourage them to take time off; and Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson wrote an open letter to all 200,000 global partners of the business.
Employee wellbeing is so important right now and companies are focusing their content to support this. Most are doing something on fitness – particularly things like yoga, pilates and meditation – and offering access to learning. UDG Healthcare has created a wellspace platform, which offers resources for mental health, physical and financial matters.
Mental wellbeing is another important area for companies to consider, particularly with this week being Mental Health Awareness week. People want to feel safe to listen, challenge and question their employer, while feeling that they are respected and valued. The Edelman Trust Barometer found that 63% of employees are looking to their employers for daily briefings. Empowering and giving employees an opportunity to voice their opinion is another area which has seen more focus. The Happiness Index global summary found that there is triple the number of words in employee feedback in the last couple of months as people have much more to talk about.
The key to all of this is to make it personal and get to know your employees in a different way. At Emperor, photography competitions and our quarterly internal newsletter, A Kilo of Squid (now produced digitally for the first time) have given us a glimpse into the lives and homes of our colleagues allowing people to share their personal stories.
The tone of your communications needs to be honest, transparent and personal. Use ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘our’ and ‘me’ language to acknowledge individual needs. Avoid clichés and overused phrases, instead find the language and tone that represents you best and energises and motivates your people.
Use one rhythm and one ‘source of the truth’ to create a sense of certainty and security. Emperor’s CEO, Steve Kemp sends a weekly email to clients every Tuesday and does an internal video presentation to all staff every Thursday to share any changes or updates to the business.
Five principles for employee communications
1. Straightforward information – single source of the truth
2. Leadership is vital – leadership team should be regular and on-point
3. Consistency and certainty – even if there is no news
4. Show that you care – encourage open conversations
5. Make it personal – dial up your personality to show your culture in action
Over the past months we’ve seen corporate reporting deadlines extended and AGMs held in directors’ living rooms, making it a challenging time for investor communications.
Research from the FRC outlines five things investors want to know now:
1. How much cash does the company have?
2. What cash and liquidity could the company obtain in the short-term?
3. What can the company do to manage expenditure in the short-term?
4. What other actions can the company take to ensure its visibility?
5. How is the company protecting its key assets and value drivers?
Timely information is key and the RNS is the fastest way to get information out to a wide audience. We’ve seen RNS feeds range from updates on the health of a senior leader to sharing changes to company strategy and to communicate changes to the AGM.
Disclosures on risk, viability and going concern
We conducted a review of the first 25 December year-end annual reports published this year – when COVID-19 was just appearing – which found that over 80% of companies addressed COVID-19, predominantly in the directors' statements, and four companies included health-related emerging risks.
The website is an important channel. BT uses a stakeholder hub where messages are tailored for different groups, including sharing an action plan for key workers and stating its position on job losses and salary cuts. AG Barr has a message from the CEO on its website reinforcing what its business priorities are. Lloyds Banking Group uses an online hub to cater to different stakeholder groups and to keep shareholders informed of changing arrangements and logistics for AGMs.
Current events are expected to influence investor expectations, reporting requirements, planning processes and narratives for the next reporting cycle. Environmental, social and governance issues (ESG) have been growing in prominence and the pandemic is likely to sharpen this focus, particularly for investors.
Five principles for corporate communications
1. Consider what information investors are looking for
2. Keep the market informed with relevant information
3. Tell your story consistently across all channels
4. Review guidance from the FRC, FCA and PRA
5. Make use of your website to reinforce key messages
Focusing on external comms, it is important to have a balanced blend of sales activation and brand building activities to maintain sustainable growth. Sales activation alone is not enough. Customer needs and mindsets have changed, regardless of the type of business or industry you operate in. This could be feelings of loneliness or anxiety, worrying about job security or a requirement for home deliveries.
The most important thing we can do as communicators is to give long-term confidence to our customers; showing that your values live up to their values, which can be done through things like offering reassurance, frequency of contact and type of messaging.
Three examples of how brands are talking to their customers effectively include Aviva, which provides information on what the pandemic means for specific products and features an extensive FAQ, reassuring customers and taking the burden off their social media team; a collaboration between supermarkets, offering advice on panic buying and how they are working together to feed the nation; and PwC, which provides a digital diagnosis tool to map your business against. This is both useful and works as a lead generation tool for them, which is a fair value exchange due to its relevance.
Actions, not ads
From Pret offering discounts and Addison Lee free rides for NHS workers, to Skoda showing people what parts of a car to disinfect and Jeep encouraging people to stay home and keep their cars in the garage, many people have been surprised by the level of support from businesses and are asking themselves: should I be marketing? Is it right? Or am I just trying to sell more stuff?
Five principles for customer communications
1. What are you hearing? Rapidly develop a new view of your customer, their needs and new attitudes
2. What are the implications on your product and service offering likely to be in the coming months?
3. What reassurance can you offer immediately that these will remain unaffected or improved?
4. Is your marketing playing into their new needs or addressing their anxieties?
5. Have you updated your communications plan to reflect people’s new media consumption?