After being preoccupied for the last few weeks with coronavirus related crisis communications, social distancing and whole workforces suddenly home working, when is the right time for internal communicators to resume normal service by restarting business as usual communications, and what should they be considering when they do?
When is the right time for internal communicators to begin resuming their normal service by reintroducing communications which are not coronavirus related into their organisations’ content and channel mix?
It’s a question I think many of us have been tussling with. As the shockwaves of enforced homeworking and reshaped working practices for those still in their usual workplaces begin to subside, and as the coronavirus related content begins to dry up (and frankly, become a bit routine and boring), I suspect many of us are asking ‘what next’?
I asked the audience in a recent Twitter poll with some interesting results. Just less than a third of respondents claimed to never have stopped doing business as usual communications, another third has recently restarted them with the remaining biggest third waiting a bit longer before they reopen the communication sluice gates again.
I think that those who are still waiting are going to have to make the call sooner rather than later. The uncomfortable reality is that the current circumstances we are in could last a very long time, and our colleagues will begin to adapt as they establish new routines, coping strategies for their work-life balance and embed new working practices. As this happens the demands on us for communication other than ‘coronacomms’ from stakeholders and our audiences will inevitably begin to increase again.
We can’t stay in communications lockdown forever and are going to have to work out how to reintroduce business as usual communications, even if this may feel somewhat inappropriate for some. Here are a few thoughts and tips on what to think about as we do that, mostly inspired by some of the internal communicators who participated in, and commented on the poll. Thanks to them for their ideas!
Rethink the channel strategy
Many of us have a channel strategy which helps us decide what sort of content should be communicated within each of our channels. Some of these are written down, others exist in our heads or are the established communications custom and practice in our organisations. At the very least they help our audiences sort out the important stuff from the not so important stuff.
It’s likely that these strategies have been rocked to their very foundations by the recent need to implement crisis communications, and in some cases by the introduction of new channels and digital platforms implemented in haste out of an urgent necessity to keep people ‘engaged’ and ‘connected’.
In the current circumstances some existing channels may no longer work in the way we originally intended them to. For example, some organisations may not have the bandwidth available for everyone to remotely access the intranet and internal social media platforms all of the time. What implications might that have for the urgent and timely dissemination of information and keeping people in touch with one another? Does that mean that some types of content should now be directed into an alternative channel?
The fact is that for many internal communicators the communications landscape in their organisations will have changed fundamentally in the last few weeks. This means that the channels we have and what types of content go into them and when, will need to be rethought and adapted before you switch on the business as usual communications again.
As I see it this crisis, and the disruption it has caused to business as usual internal communications, has created a golden opportunity for many of us to establish more effective channel strategies. It’s made us press pause on the daily deluge of content in organisations, and made stakeholders question the importance of messages and their urges to request that we ‘just send this out to everyone’ using every available channel.
My blog and channel strategy bingo card might help you to think about what your channel strategy should look like now, while social distancing continues.
Rethink the communications plan
If you are the well organised type of internal communicator you will probably have an annual communications plan in place for your organisation.
Before you switch business as usual communications back on, it might be worth having a think about whether this plan is still the right thing to do.
Of course, there will be some ‘givens’ in the plan that will still need to be communicated such as business and financial results, performance related matters, product launches, changes to offerings for customers and other things related to the annual business cycle of your organisation.
However, critically reviewing everything else in the plan and deciding if it is still appropriate and necessary will help you to make sure you are spending your time on the communications which will be most relevant and useful for colleagues and their new circumstances. If it’s not, ditch it altogether or postpone it to when this crisis is finally over.
Also consider if there are new things that should be added in. Times are tough and people’s health and wellbeing are on the line. Is there something you should perhaps be doing about that?
Corporate social responsibility and diversity and inclusion, always important topics in more normal times, are also even more important and relevant now. Maybe there is an ongoing or intensified campaign that needs to be factored into your plan to keep people involved and bought in.
Rethink the tactics
The tactics you regularly used before this crisis began may now be totally impractical. For example, our long favoured go to option for interactive two-way communication, face-to-face, is now defunct for however long this social distancing situation lasts. This one’s a no-brainer and many are now turning to, or discovering for the first time, how to emulate the face-to-face interactive communication experience using digital platforms. However, perhaps there are other more subtle tactical changes that need to happen too?
Some who commented on my Twitter poll, mentioned beginning to brigade their less essential business as usual communications into single weekly roundups and newsletters. I’m guessing that they are conscious of the need to not over clutter their other more visible channels and tactics, such as intranets, with the ‘nice to know’ category of information that can sometimes obscure the ‘need to know’ and actionable content.
When we switch business as usual communication back on, I think we need to be mindful that we still need to keep the airwaves relatively clear for important and priority content as the coronavirus outbreak unfolds. None of us can predict what might happen next and what other crisis communications may be suddenly required in response to that, so a little caution is required as we turn the taps back on.
For years we’ve identified line managers as being one of the main barriers to communicating effectively in organisations. The recent 2020 Gatehouse State of the Sector Report again demonstrated that this remains the case and that we are still failing to prioritise this important audience group for action.
Right now line managers, more than ever, are the ones holding it together for their teams. Perhaps now is the time that we should be focusing our tactical efforts on them, and making sure that they have the communications content and tools to get our organisations through this crisis. What more could you do for line managers and are the tactics you used before this crisis began still relevant and useful?
Rethink the listening
The thing about crisis communications is they tend to be one way. The urgent need to ‘get something out’ means that the focus is almost always on the needs of the sender and not the receiver. For example, if you drafted a set of Frequently Asked Questions as part of your crisis communications response how many of them were really ‘frequent’ and devised in response to audience feedback? I’ll wager, not many.
Listening to employees is one of the most important things internal communicators can do as this lockdown continues. In classic fashion we need to be understanding what they are ‘thinking’, ‘feeling’ and ‘doing’ more regularly than the annual colleague and periodic pulse surveys, so that we can respond with communications that will really help them.
I always think that soliciting feedback is a tricky business, and that the bow wave of feedback we get when we do this in the wrong way often means it comes back as a mess of unstructured comments which just makes it more difficult to analyse, decipher and action.
Finding a way to gather feedback in a regular and structured fashion, will give you more of a chance of quickly working out what the issues are and what the response should be. Again, perhaps line managers are the answer and asking them to provide regular structured feedback from teams as a composite part of the tactics being used to help them communicate might be a quick solution.
Now, are you ready to resume normal service?