Thomas Borwick Reflects on the Internal Communications Challenges Faced by Businesses as Lockdown Lifts

In response to Chris Calland’s recent PR Week piece on the communications challenges faced by businesses as we ease out of lockdown, Thomas Borwick, founding director of communications and campaigns consultancy College Green Group, sets out some practical steps that business owners and managers can consider taking to meet those challenges.

I thought Chris covered all the key issues facing employers in his piece. But I was left wondering what to do about them? I come from a political communications background, but it struck me that many of the principles that apply there, also work in the business sphere.

The communications industry exists to bridge gaps between people and help them understand the “why” behind things like decisions and policies. Whether you are selling a political party to an electorate or a restructuring plan to shareholders and employees, the same basics principles and considerations should be borne in mind:

Who are you speaking to? Chris made the excellent point that you may need to connect with more than one audience. Staff, shareholders, suppliers, partners and customers may all have different positions and priorities. Collating this information in a concise and coherent format is crucial to being able to make decisions and plan for implementing changes. 

What do you want those people to do? In politics, you want them to vote for your team. In business with multiple stakeholders in the discussion, you want them to get behind the vision you have for your business, so everyone is working towards the same goals and doing so with the confidence that they understand that vision and know where they fit in the machine.

How to communicate your intent? With a crisis like Covid, there are many things which have had to be managed against unknown possible outcomes. As the vaccine rollout gives us hope that we will emerge from its shadow and those outcomes start looking more certain, deciding a vision for the future and how to implement it will get businesses on the front foot. Your communications strategy needs to make sure that vision is clear and everyone understands it. 

Where to start? A good comms strategy would involve inviting all relevant parties to take part in a general fact-finding survey, probably online, with invitations sent through a corporate email system and data captured for analysis. Defining that data is important, so you can have the insights you need to help you set your future goals. Also important is carefully choosing the message you convey when asking people to participate, as this will be crucial in gaining maximum support and stopping misinterpretation of your intentions among employees.

There are likely to be different messages for different stakeholders and you will probably want to follow up with more in-depth discussions with some respondents in order to fully understand their responses. Businesses may need to invest in advice, support, or new systems to effectively deliver this.

Once you have gathered your data and done your follow ups, you then need to settle on the plan you want to present. That plan needs to be clear, concise and presented without ambiguity. The policies which underpin your plan will need to be developed with stakeholders, but ultimately an employer has legal duties of care and needs to be able to get insurance, so involving advisors on those aspects is also important. Counsel from expert advisory firms may need to be published with the policies, so it is clear why certain steps are being proposed.

Involving communication professionals in preparing your plan for presentation to shareholders and employees can make sure you avoid the potential pitfall of being too close to your subject, making your communications too specialised and insular.

Covid has resulted in huge changes in the way we live, work and communicate, some of these changes will reverse as we move to a new normal, but some of the changes will remain. How the dust settles remains to be seen, however one thing that’s certain is that a team of experienced and skilled communicators to help explain how your business and ways of working are changing will be an invaluable asset as you tackle this next phase of recovery. 

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