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Wise words for troubling times: people first, behavior matters, and silver linings
In the face of this unprecedented global health crisis, reputation will either be made or broken in times like this. Good decisions well communicated, well executed can be transformational. We asked our Board and Advisory Members at Echo for their views on five key questions:
1. While no one knows how long this will go on for, how do you see reputation management being impacted?
Visible leadership is key. Very active internal communications - daily updates and briefings/reminders. Active use of social media to support and underline responsible action, Government advice and good practice from business to support families and communities.
The focus of corporate communicators will be on internal communications, and rightly so.The way a company will treat and support its employees will be vital to its reputation. A permanent crisis management paradigm will reign externally for quite a while – at least until the end of the wave, i.e. sometime late this year or early next year.
The real economy is now king and real action will reign supreme in reputation management. Performance goals will be useless. The behavior and action of companies and their leaders will determine how they fare through and beyond this crisis, which is a live ammo test of their culture, purpose and societal commitment. No business playbook exists for this challenge, and the countries that have practiced on SARS and learned (like Taiwan and South Korea) are hard to emulate since the government-business interplay and the discipline of the citizenry are different there than in the West.
Long after it's all over, people will remember how companies acted during this unprecedented moment in time. Not just 'what' they did, but 'how' they behaved. This is the moment to demonstrate actively and compassionately the truth behind statements such as “people first / people are our greatest asset” .
As this crisis deepens daily, every organization is facing an existential challenge. It's going to get worse before it gets better, and reputation is going to impact the chances of survival as well as the ability to rebound after it's all over. In times like this, reputation matters more than ever.
Reputations will be damaged or enhanced depending on approach, experience in dealing with demands of the situation—example from US Amazon according to report today to recruit 100,000 new employees to deal with expected demands, but will pay them more. This may enhance their reputation, if they perform well in meeting new demands and treat their employees better in the process.
An exogenous shock - like the COVID-19 pandemic - will often not generate negative reputational impact on companies who are responding to it. Nonetheless, the opportunity does exist to build reputation through the unfortunate circumstances. Keep in mind that a proven correlate to an enterprise´s overall reputation is how it is perceived in treating its own staff members. This is a unique period to build reputational capital by doing the good and right thing with employees.
2. Purpose and corporate responsibility seem to be taking a back seat in the face of possible slow downs, cost cutting, reduced hours and even redundancies – what is your view?
Agree. Action is key, action explained simply and not forced into CSR or purpose speak. By their behavior, business will demonstrate their purpose (why they exists), their culture (how they behave and treat others) and even their strategy (what they do and how they do it). Not a time for concepts, but to be aware of the fact that all actions now will be seen through the lens of whether they are helpful to others as well as in the company’s (and its stakeholders’) best interest.
Focus on employees, families and local communities. How can a business use its power and resources to advise, help and support? Payment of smaller businesses, use of business in community, sharing good practice on physical and mental health.
For organisations that have a true and meaningful purpose, this may well be their beacon for action and their anchor for hope.They can stand firm behind it and show that it is not a vacuous statement for PR purposes. The same for CSR—remember what those letters stand for: 'Corporate', 'Social' and 'Responsibility'. The scope and scale of their CSR focus and actions may change, but I believe that we are in a time of People/Society first/Business second.
In every country, the crisis means we are all in it together. We have to partner together to ride out the impact. Companies that are committed to purpose and corporate responsibility are more important than ever. And society will value them more than ever. There is some evidence that ESG committed companies are faring better so far in the financial collapse.
I'm sceptical about these concepts in any case, but clear thinking organisations conducting good business under difficult conditions will not give up on thinking about realising their purpose and doing the right things.
The measure of an enterprise is continually taken in terms of how it treats its stakeholders - in both good times and troubled times. With the hard spotlight on our actions in the face of this pandemic, the opportunity to express our mission, purpose and charater in our actions has almost never been more at hand!
3. If you could have any kind of insight right now from any stakeholder group or issue, what would that be?
Who do you trust to truly care for you? To tell you the truth and give you the best advice on how to behave responsibly?
From employees particularly, being experienced in my own extended family situation who work across a range of sectors internationally including private sector, startups and big global multinationals. They are smart young adults, yet they are understandably anxious. They have no real point of reference. The 'older' generation will recall their parents experiences of the war, rationing etc. They are calling for clarity, transparency and frequency of communications. The messaging is bound to change as the circumstances change. The communicators need to be clear as to 'why' it has.
Understanding employee feelings and morale is critical. The organization may be facing an existential threat; employees are dealing with the personal impact of social isolation; there is a fear of contamination if your job means you can't isolate. In a national and global period of crisis, can I look to my company's leaders for support?
What are demonstrably good strategies for managing uncertainty, running all the way through from good leadership to support to employees or other affected groups to handle uncertainty? French initiative to support business under threat as a good example of support to affected groups.
Visibility of experts in the business to support, reassure, advise led from the top. Think now governments are moving to support business and the economy to underline how fast moving this crisis is.
Table stakes in this situation is what our enterprise is doing to ensure the safety of our stakeholders. Beyond this given, I would be so interested to learn and uncover what we may do to help them feel secure, protected, cared for and optimistic.
4. Are there things that the media and social channels are not talking about that we should be mindful of?
How can we usefully spend the time if we are in quarantine or self-isolating? Should we group our friends into Facebook or Skype chat groups for Happy Hour or coffee breaks, or even lunch or dine apart, together?
The psychological impact for all of us, which is enormous. Social distancing, self-isolation, fear - especially when 'negative' news and commentary is 24 hours non-stop.
There has been less accessible coverage about the scientific approaches and initiatives being taken in the areas of therapy and vaccination to deal with the pandemic.
New ways of working- not just voice but face as well through FaceTime & Zoom to name just two. Seeing people is important!
What happens when this is all over, at least for this year? We may not go back to the way it was – what sort of world should we build instead? How do we make that happen given the return to xenophobia and nationalism?
5. What is the silver lining to this pandemic?
None. This is a disaster. However, we may get useful lessons out of it on how to meet the challenges of the next global pathogen run amok, because it will come.
Some challenges to how we work in the crisis could and arguably should become standard. More home working, more flexibility and use of technology where possible and recognise that much of this will need to continue in some form as we face the climate emergency.
On a micro level - the way that people and neighbours are connecting and offering to help each other. On a macro level - We are being reminded of the power of mother nature. This is not a man-made crisis (like the financial crisis in 2008). Alongside the immediate urgency for action for coronavirus, governments, businesses and society should be reflecting deeply and honestly about how to 'use' what is happening to make real progress to tackle climate change issues.
Yes, oddly—it will be the end of business as usual. For example, why should we commute to offices? Can we be more productive at home? Which of the activities we are currently giving up will we have to return to? How else might we live our lives? The situation prompts big questions, that will surface as the immediate task of getting through this period of infection with as few casualties as possible.
A number of shocks in recent years across our social system globally (eg, terrorist attacks, lone-wolf mass assassins) have made it clear that we must find ways to survive - and indeed thrive - in smaller communities, inter-connected but not necessarily physically contiguous. The exogenous biological threat of COVID-19 may provoke us to build, implement, test and tune the kinds of systems and cultural interactions that will facilitate this, allowing us appropriate social interaction and effective fiscal engagements.
While this may not be quite the ‘new normal’, many things clearly will change. But many will not – for organizations that means continuing to focus on stakeholders that matter most. We’re here to help with good listening tools / approaches, and delivery of sound evidence of how you are doing on your journey and where there may be important gaps to address.
If you have other questions or comments, do let us know – or add to this conversation here. Above all, we hope you keep healthy, safe and well informed.
With our thanks and looking forward to seeing you soon.
The Echo Team