The Importance Of Honest Communication

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ONE of the upsides of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the spotlight being suddenly trained on professions that would otherwise have been chugging along in the background: From nurses and cleaners to delivery services, researchers and communicators.

The initial panic that swept through companies ill-prepared for the swiftness with which the  COVID-19 measures has somewhat given way to a sense of resignation that they are going to be in a slump for a while. The future is a stormy dark cloud, and many companies are trying to find a silver lining to convince themselves and their customers, stakeholders and shareholders that there is a contingency plan.

Many businesses would be irreversibly affected by the hiatus in operations while others would feel the effects of a weakening economy and a change in customer behaviour.

The need for information flow has pushed public relations firms to the fore, as they guide businesses through managing the fallout as stock values drop, uncertainty reigns and the horizon offers no bright spots, and no definite shape to discern.

PR firms, used to dealing with issues their clients throw at them, have experience in understanding how best to tackle tough challenges, crafting clear statements, be it for glory or recovery. We talk to 5 agencies and get their take on how they will ride the pandemic.

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Emily Poon Ogilvy

SARS was a moment in time where we saw a huge acceleration in digital services, and COVID-19 is no different.

While we have certainly seen a tightening of belts in marketing budgets especially in harder hit sectors like travel, tourism and aviation, clients’ need for help – and consumer appetite for content and virtual experiences – is higher than ever.

We are seeing a double-digit growth in our fast-paced, short form content production as client partners pivot towards more agile and nimble ways of storytelling.

There is more appetite for experimentation in storytelling than ever before — be it repurposing existing stock footage, tapping into animations and graphics, featuring user-generated content, hand-held shots from mobile phones or providing creative direction to influencers while they use their smartphones to generate content from home.

Our  industry is made up of people who love a challenge and are natural problem solvers at heart. We are partnering clients to create virtual brand experiences as offline events are transitioning online to better connect with consumers and audiences.

Press conferences are being transformed into live demonstrations and chats for remote yet effective storytelling, consumer activations are turning to watch parties hosted by homefluencers, and trade roadshows are morphing into interactive digital summits.

Live Up To Your Brand Value

Putting the community first in service of your purpose will go a long way in building brands and narratives that matter to consumers and earn influence, like in the example of a technology client helping to empower micro, small and medium enterprises to digitalise their offering and improve livelihoods now and in the recovery phase.

Plan with a recovery in mind. How can we prepare brands for when the situation gets back to a sense of normalcy? By helping people be optimistic that we will see the world again.

We need to think of the companies and clients we work for as our own business and approach it with the same entrepreneurial spirit and passion. This is the time especially for us to be in the trenches together, be deeply empathetic to their challenges and have a partnership mindset in solving problems together.

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Yap Boh Tiong, Mileage Group

Communicate honestly and as frequent as possible to update your stakeholders on the status of your business and what measures you are taking to engage them.

For example, for a listed company, its shareholders and the regulatory body would want to be updated on how it is coping with the pandemic and what steps it has taken to mitigate the impact, and the recovery measures that are put in place.

During this AGM period, companies will decide whether to declare a dividend pay out. Many local and foreign companies such as HSBC Holdings PLC, Las Vegas Sands and Estee Lauder opted to adopt dividends suspension. Such decisions have triggered adverse reactions among shareholders.

Thus the decision to do so, which is usually to safeguard reserves for future expenses during this uncertain period, must be well communicated to unhappy shareholders.

For companies that have to interface with a large customer base, a FAQ guide would be useful. A US casino consulted an epidemiologist to address customers’ concerns.

A list of questions and answers was drawn up for the staff and one question was: “Can I contract COVID-19 from handling cards and chips?”

Short answer to the question is Yes.

Casinos employ compulsory hand sanitization for anyone joining a table, periodic hand sanitization during play, either switching out the cards after every hand or every few hands, full decontamination of chips after every shift on a more frequent schedule and sanitizing dice after every shooter. Plexiglass between players isn’t very useful because micro-droplets that contain the virus can easily flow under, over and around the partitions.

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Nolan Ovinis, Priority Consultants

The key to a return to anything like normality is “trust”.

Employees and customers alike must be able to trust and have the confidence that it is business as usual. They need to feel they are taken care of and this has to be communicated in a very assuring way.

Having a robust and ongoing communications plan is needed for both their external and internal audiences.

Our advice to them is to be clear on the direction and chart it on a regular basis to ensure your messages of trust and confidence are delivered to the right audience using the right channels.

Businesses should maintain transparent, open communications with regard to their crisis management plans and how they are working towards a return to some form of normality. That they have made all the necessary fortifications on the health and safety of their people and will begin meeting their customers’ needs once more.

They should briefly recap the measures they took to protect staff and customers during the lockdown and give details of the steps being taken now, in compliance with government/regulatory guidelines, as they move towards a lifting of proximity and mobility restrictions.

Finally we urge companies to view and continue communications as an integral part of life at the organisation. Not just a short or medium term requirement.

Increased communications with employees and customers increases productivity, loyalty and commitment to a common goal. Transparency increases trust and unites the organisation on that common goal.

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Jin Ooi, Huntington Communications

The issues companies face will not be unique — we would have all experienced some form of challenge or issue caused by COVID-19.

Customers and clients will have more appetite for empathy and forgiveness. The worst thing a company can do is to intentionally withhold information or mislead.

There are some issues that can be pre-empted. It would be faster and more convenient for both customers and businesses if these simple issues can be resolved without having to make a call, talk to a chatbot, or send an email. This will also help alleviate the workload of the customer service staff.

Customers have to be nimble and roll with the blows. COVID-19 has been a disruptor of epic proportions. It will continue to accelerate the demise of industries, companies and organisations that were already losing relevance before the pandemic.

Business owners will have to dig deep and find their purpose — ask themselves why they exist? What purpose do they serve? Are they a nice-to-have, or must-have?

If they are losing relevance, is there a way to quickly pivot to make themselves play a more important role?

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Kamal Samuel, Financial PR

We need to continue to evolve to provide value to our clients. We have changed our model to include more online investor relations solutions. We are hopeful that this will allow us to grow in the longer term.

I think the industry has changed irreversibly. Those not able to adapt will drop off and there will be more consolidation.

Our business is also a function of SGX’s performance. As we deal with a lot of listed companies, transparency to shareholders about the true state of the business is essential.

This pandemic has hit hard, and people are willing to hear you out.

From a simplistic point of view, people want to know what is happening to your business and what the business owners are doing about it. Internally your staff and vendors are worried.

Information is always good for customers. However, think about framing the answers from the perspective of the customer, not from the perspective of your business.

In a crisis, internal communications to your staff is crucial. Your staff are your lifeblood and it’s important to communicate with compassion and honesty. Sometimes honesty is painful, and that’s where your transparency in the matter and the compassion from business owners come in.

If you are one of the more fortunate businesses that can survive or manage to pivot well in this environment, it would be good to position yourself as a thought leader in your space or to even “claim” a topic.

The idea is simple  — we will emerge stronger post-pandemic.

Transformation doesn’t happen overnight, but your stakeholders want to know your journey. Business owners should take this opportunity to communicate this journey to galvanize support internally and externally.

 

If you have a point of view on COVID-19, or think someone you know could present a thought-provoking perspective on the subject, please email [email protected] with your details and a short summary.

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