By Arpan Basu
The communications industry is an apt reflection of our time: fast-paced and in need of constant evolution. Especially during crises, well-devised communications can become the quickest tool in ensuring business continuity and responding to unprecedented situations.
When the pandemic struck, a one-of-a-kind black swan event that few communication professionals had seen before in their careers – it proved difficult to determine how to reach out to stakeholders. With business goals compromised, cultural shifts inevitable and expectations from brands rapidly changing – most organizations around the world hadn’t factored in the possibility of something this unthinkable: and reeled in shock for weeks before formulating an appropriate communications strategy. With businesses of all sizes affected, communication leaders were faced with an anxious audience that required messages that showed depth of emotion, while still being disruptive.
Being privy to the many hair-bending twists and turns of a crisis and having been a communications professional now for many years, there are still a few general principles that come handy while building a response. One of the foremost principles is communicating clearly and promptly – through the right channels, to the right audience with the right message. Every crisis causes an information vacuum – hence, if one doesn’t act fast, rumours and criticism can aid in blowing the situation up further. For many, this was not an option as the COVID-19 pandemic struck business operations hard, hence communication leaders had to unlearn their swift first-response tactics and keep their ears to the ground. When the time was right, brands built their messages on compassion, addressing feelings and not just facts. Approaching the situation with honesty and empathy was one of the key ways in driving successful communication during this time – showing that you care, was the only story to tell.
This brings me to my first lesson learnt during the pandemic: the need for bringing empathy, urgency and transparency into messaging.
It’s easier to trust in a company or a brand that has always been honest and worked to engage with their audiences instead of one trying to build a positive image when a crisis strikes. Thus, a communication professional’s work in building a transparent, approachable corporate brand should be a continuous, ongoing process – one that shows genuine care and concern for consumers and their communities.
Firstly, understanding the emotions of the audience is an important skill of a communicator and is tested during times of a crisis. Like Simon Baron-Cohen said and I would implore my fellow communication professionals to remember, ‘Empathy is like a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble.’ Secondly, it’s important to deliver an empathetic message in a timely manner to mitigate business or stakeholder harm. In one’s urgency, it becomes even more vital to check for any leaks in company information or inappropriate content that might be offensive. And lastly, transparency is key to building trust in anything – communications being no different.
The second lesson learnt by businesses and practices across industries that also resonated with the Communications industry was – communicating with employees truthfully and conveying hope for the future.
It’s undoubtedly difficult to talk to one’s team when the future is uncertain. Even when there are limited answers, I believe that one of the biggest priority areas is communicating clearly with employees to ensure their professional and personal safety and general wellbeing. The best organizations and professionals in the world put the security of their people first. Most organizations should have a well-formed internal communications channel, which encourages open dialogue and feedback – a platform that allows for sharing of positive information about the health of an organization, as well as the more bitter pills to swallow.
This where I believe the expert communication skills of leaders holds steadfast. Strong leaders, at the forefront of the organization should also directly speak to their employees – to provide assurance and mitigate false hope. Hearing from one’s leader often, helps ebb anxiety during a crisis.
Thirdly, many communications professionals like myself, realized the power of communities in the face of a crisis.
Many of us are a part of organizations that we believe in. Organizations that work tirelessly in delivering community benefit: on-ground and where it matters. Our thought behind designing communications for Coca-Cola, for example, was to evoke the sentiment that we’re all in this together so that nobody feels alone in dealing with the crisis. We strengthened Coca-Cola’s imagery as a responsible business and stayed true to our core philosophy of ‘Making a difference to lives, communities and the planet.’ We created resonance for all of Coca-Cola’s relief efforts and how we care for our communities. Since the organization wanted to play a significant role in aiding communities, we went dark on all forms of advertising and used only owned media channels to share our efforts. Focusing on human interest stories also helped us amplify the work being done with our NGO partners. The visibility garnered during this period was widespread and substantive, creating high visibility on the Community Response Initiatives of Coca-Cola India across the country.
Lastly, it was important for all of us to focus on business continuity plans – and regularly share these plans on how we’re building a conducive environment for success with our stakeholders.
‘Landscape scale’ events like the coronavirus, creates uncertainty, heightens stress and makes people develop tunnel vision which doesn’t let them concentrate on a brighter future. Many brands changed their logo, slogans and built special creatives to formulate an appropriate response to the crisis for the communities they were affiliated with to share a message of responsible positivity. One of my personal favourites was Nike’s life-saving call to professional athletes – ‘Now is your chance: play inside, play for the world.’ We too, at Coca-Cola, wanted to build powerful, positive experiences and feelings for our customers and their communities so that they knew that they could rely on us as needed. We were able to build positive messaging around our regional and partner initiatives as well, our micro-level initiatives found favour among both external and internal stakeholders. Another campaign that was a hit with both sets, was our India-adaptation of the #ToTheHumanRace campaign – “UmmeedoWaaliDhoop’, which was also part of a global case study. It was important to us to deliver essential products to our consumers during the lockdown when there was limited production, as well as ensure all the products and services they required were in ample supply when needed post the lockdown. It was wonderful to see that we’ve already established that relationship with our consumers, our brand trust increased and they believed us when we said that we’re with them all the way.
Trust truly is an organization’s shield when it comes to a crisis. With almost 560 million internet users in India today, bad news travels faster than ever before – this is where keeping stakeholders informed and sharing the correct information regularly becomes absolutely vital. Consumer behavior is altering quicker than non-pandemic times, hence getting the facts across before negative, permanent behavioral change occurs is paramount.
With the pandemic having ensued for more than six months now, I’ve often thought about what my greatest learning as a communications professional is from this crisis. It’s not being timely, regularly offering solutions or even thinking out-of-the-box to ensure business continuity. My greatest takeaway would be to approach communications with humility – recognizing humbly, that what we have to say and what people might need to listen to may be different. Humility should be the thread that binds every piece of communication together – if you have the power to affect another human being, this characteristic of crisis communications is non-negotiable.
As Winston Churchill famously said- “Never let a good crisis go to waste”, my hope for the communications industry is to take these learnings into the now normal with renewed vigor, and help keep the message of hope alive. For after all – we’re all in this together.
The author is the director-communications, Coca-Cola India and South West Asia. Views expressed are personal.