What will it take to reassure and persuade employees to confidently emerge from lockdown and return to their usual workplaces as these begin to reopen? This will not just be about messaging and tactics. Internal communicators must also maintain ethical practice against the backdrop of an emerging ‘gaslighting’ campaign which seeks to change our perceptions of the pandemic and its consequences.
Today in England we take another step forward towards the new abnormal as non-essential shops and retailers are allowed to reopen. In other parts of the UK, such as Wales and Scotland, their doors remain firmly closed, for now.
It’s a fact that in some parts of England the coronavirus infection (R) rate and death rates are still uncomfortably high. In the coming days many people will be weighing up the risk of potential exposure to Covid-19 in the more confined spaces of smaller shops, and some will decide to continue to stay away.
What will it take to reassure and persuade everyone to confidently emerge from lockdown and return to these settings and also workplaces as these begin to reopen? This latter point is something which internal communicators have been discussing for the last few weeks, with suggested messaging and lists of issues and concerns to address with employee communications, being shared and debated.
Don’t forget the ethics
Much of this recent debate in internal communications has focused on content and channels, but there is another thing we need to be mindful of as well. As we shape these ‘return to the workplace’ communications we must not only seek to inform, raise understanding and encourage the right behaviours amongst employees. We must also be mindful of ethical practice and not intentionally or inadvertently seek to underplay the continuing risks of the virus in the workplace or try to obscure and diminish the shared reality about what just happened to us all during the pandemic, even if we are coerced by our employers and clients to do so.
To a lesser or greater degree people are still scared, and it will take a lot of reassurance for many of them to have the confidence to actively participate in the new abnormal, including returning to their usual workplaces, albeit in a new socially distanced format. Last week we learned that the UK economy shrank by over 20% in April 2020 because of the lockdown. In the wake of this sharp economic slowdown, and the shadow of a looming deep depression, there is an intensified ‘push me pull you’ tension developing between the mutually exclusive imperatives of public health and economics to get people back to work quickly and possibly at any cost.
Businesses and organisations are acutely aware of the economic imperative, their very survival depends on it. We must be prepared for the uncomfortable proposition that some will do anything it takes to try to reset the behaviours and beliefs of consumers, supporters, employees and students (to name just few stakeholder groups) to something which more closely resembles those in existence pre-pandemic.
The gaslighting campaign has begun
As these recent essays by Julio Vincent Gambuto for Medium highlight, we are all about to be subjected to ‘gaslighting’ in the coming weeks and months by communications emanating from many sources which are driven by questionable ethics and motives. These will seek to persuade us that what just happened wasn’t all that bad and that the continuing risks of infection are low enough for us to put them to the back of minds when taking our daily decisions to shop, travel, work, socialise and generally be around other people who are not in our pandemic ‘support bubbles’.
Some internal communicators may be put under pressure to be a part of this gaslighting campaign by leaders in their organisations and others, and to sacrifice balanced and truthful internal communication on the altar of the bottom line to help their employers get employees back over the workplace threshold more quickly. As individuals, and as a profession, we must have the courage to resist this when it is not the right thing to do and maintain ethical practice.
The gaslighting campaign is already gathering pace and all communicators should be mindful of this, and be skeptical of the motives which drive it in the settings where they practice. For example, in recent days in the UK there has been a subtle shift in the narrative being peddled by the UK government as it has come under intense media scrutiny about whether or not it locked the UK down early enough. Difficult questions are now being asked about how many deaths could have been avoided with an earlier lockdown and demands for a public enquiry grow daily.
Cast you mind back to early March, when it seemed that the UK Government was adopting a maverick ‘let it spread’ policy and the concept of herd immunity entered the public debate about how to respond to the virus. We are now being ‘gaslighted’ by ministerial communications which seek to persuade us that we imagined all of that and it was never a policy, in an attempt by the government to establish some credibility in their track record of how they handled this crisis.
At a more practical level, as workplaces reopen and employees are asked to return, the two metre social distancing rule is about to be the next victim of the gaslighting campaign which will be jointly perpetrated by some businesses and the government. In the new abnormal it is simply unworkable in some workplace settings and a reduction to a more economically friendly one metre is the difference between make or break for some businesses. The ensuing ‘debate’, however legitimately it will be positioned, will seek to establish a cognitive dissonance in our understanding and recollection of how far we really need to be apart to avoid infection. We will likely be influenced to change our belief that it wasn’t ever really necessary to be so far apart – so much for being guided by ‘the science’.
Internal communicators are unique
Internal communicators have a unique role in organisations. We are effectively caught in the middle between the demands of leaders and management and the needs and interests of employees as stakeholders. The potential for ethical conflicts of interest are huge, and we often have the unenviable and difficult task of balancing the demands of these two masters to find a way to do the right thing for both of them.
In the current situation, the balancing act for internal communicators to do the right thing has suddenly become more acute against a backdrop of a gaslighting campaign which will intentionally seek to seed doubt about exactly what the right thing to do was, and now is.
Being an internal communicator during the pandemic has been a tough job, and for some is about to get even tougher.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment. Read more about gaslighting on Wikipedia.
If you need help with understanding the ethical contexts of internal communication and ethical practice, here are some suggested resources:
The AVID framework for good and ethical practice – Chapter 6 Exploring Internal Communications Towards Informed Employee Voice 4th Edition – Kevin Ruck and in this article AVID framework for good internal communication
Communicating Ethical Values – Katherine Bradshaw for Institute of Internal Communication
Communicating Ethical Values Internally – Institute of Business Ethics
Inside Ethics – The Internal Communicators’ Moral Maze (CIPR Inside Webinar) – Available on the CIPR CPD database for members.