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Five tips for effective communications as we move out of lockdown

This article initially appeared in Real Deals.

 

The need for clear, effective communication has remained constant as the nation collectively figured out how to adjust to lockdown, and then consequently the more complicated process for coming out of lockdown and the move towards a new normal.

Good communications during such times of uncertainty and change is business critical. And the need for executive teams to carefully plan and manage the message they are giving employees, customers, suppliers, investors, government, media and other stakeholders will only continue to grow over the coming weeks as media scrutiny of business behaviour intensifies.

However, good communication doesn’t happen by chance. It is the result of taking the time to understand what your audience is thinking and feeling, of crafting clear messages, and adopting a tone and approach that resonates well with your audiences.

As the lockdown continues to ease, there will be a multitude of operational and business continuity decisions facing companies. What a business communicates and, importantly, how they communicate during this time is more critical than ever.

 

Five tips for businesses on how to plan effective communications as we move out of lockdown:

 

1. Consider your tone and nuance.

Your messaging must adapt with a Covid-19 lens. Communications that ignore the high levels of concern that still prevail as we move out of lockdown and the wide economic pain will not resonate with your staff, customers or the general public. Consider how you need to adjust your business’ core messages to ensure they are sensitive and appropriate to the environment you are now operating in.

2. Act now to protect your company’s reputation from future scrutiny.

The reckoning of how businesses have behaved and treated their staff during this time has already begun. Companies that have used government support throughout this time should also expect questions to be asked at some point about executive renumeration, especially if staff redundancies are to come. Objectively examine your business decisions and ask how they would come across if they were on the front page of a newspaper. Then communicate and act responsibly and sensitively now to ensure your reputation won’t be damaged in the coming
months because you ‘did the wrong thing’.

3. Prepare to communicate your new normal.

If your business has been or will be reshaped, it’s time to adjust what you say about yourself and articulate your new normal. Plans for business changes will require thoughtful preparation of an appropriate narrative, and you will need to develop key messages and a suite of materials to convey your message. For any significant change programmes that will be implemented, take the time to carefully plan how announcements will be made and the messages you need to convey to your staff and external stakeholders, including government, regulators and media.

4. Provide certainty where possible.

Your staff and customers are looking for certainty wherever they can find it at the moment. As much as possible, provide answers and as clear a picture of your future as possible. Rule things in and out wherever possible. Keep your staff in the loop as much as possible, including furloughed staff, and make sure you are actively listening to their questions and concerns. Your honesty and sincere efforts to regularly keep all employees up to date with the situation facing your business will be deeply appreciated.

5. Keep your communications natural and emotionally engaging.

Don’t rush back to polished, slick ways of communicating. People appreciate authenticity and honesty during times of great change, so keep your communications relational and personable. Your staff and customers will long remember how they were treated during this period. If you put the effort in to planning and executing good communications during this uncertain time, you can reap the rewards of gratitude and loyalty.

 

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Navigating the new normal for transport in a Covid-19 world

“The fundamentals of travel are not going to change in the sense that people will begin to return to work, things will slowly return to normal. What will change is what this ‘normal’ looks like”, Robert Largan MP, member of the Transport Select Committee remarked in his opening statement for our recent webinar ‘Navigating the new normal for transport in a Covid-19 world’.

Alongside Robert Largan MP, our webinar heard from a panel of industry practitioners who contributed their unique perspectives on what the changing landscape for transport might look like, including:

A flavour of the most interesting points arising from the discussion is captured in brief below, but if you would like to watch the Webinar in full you can register for the link below, or to speak with us about any of the points raised, please do get in touch.

 

Impact of Covid-19 on public and active transport: accelerating change

 

The crisis has brought into sharper focus a number of challenges that were already facing the UK’s transport system and thrown plenty more into the mix.

Covid-19 has hit the railway hard. Social distancing measures mean many parts of the public transport system will be limited to 15-20 per cent of normal capacity for some time, forcing the introduction of Emergency Measures Agreements (EMAs) in place of existing franchise arrangements. This sits against the backdrop of the Williams review with major reform already on the cards. The government may now have the option of simply evolving the EMAs into whatever arrangements follow Williams, possibly having to take on additional revenue risks. Williams has understandably been delayed but is still expected to land later this year and reforms to the railway will now need to factor in that travel patterns may have changed for good. For example, there will be debate over the extent to which government should now focus on punctuality rather than capacity given the reduced number of passengers.

There is a more positive story for cycling with Covid-19, reinforcing the importance of active travel. It has proven that active travel is both desirable and favourable, and when people feel safe – in the infrastructure, equipment and confidence – to cycle, they will do so. In fact, it is fair to say that cycling became the nation’s default transport mode in the height of this crisis. The key question remains of how to embed these positive changes on a permanent basis. Government’s active signposting towards the Cycle to Work scheme has highlighted the importance of promoting more active travel. The industry is now calling for more infrastructure to go alongside this demand-side policy measure, including more dedicated road space for cycling.

In both areas, the current crisis has had major short-term impacts but has also underlined the case for change in the medium term.

 

Mode-integration and data sharing: digital connectivity is key

 

The UK is not very good at using data, and a more joined-up travel system is essential to the levelling up agenda which remains important.

The transport data that we have available could and should be used more successfully in order to ensure we develop a more connected and integrated system, incorporating more active travel and greater cycling and walking infrastructure. We can also put it to better use via traffic management, for example, or through the development of better and even more integrated mobility as a service platform. It’s now not hard to imagine a world where real-time data allows the public to plan journeys with far more information at their fingertips; from traffic flow and congestion information to the availability of electric car charging points or the location of the nearest e-scooter or bike available from sharing schemes.

Clearly for this vision to become a reality there is much to do. The integration of electric vehicle charging hubs into a multi-modal model will be key, as will the development of the necessary digital infrastructure that can facilitate the necessary exchange of data. The rollout of full-fibre broadband is important not just for connecting individual homes and businesses, it also provides vital backhaul for the development of 5G connectivity and will enable the development of smart transport networks.

 

The role of local government: the benefits of devolution

 

The panel were unanimous in the view that more devolution is generally positive for transport.

The complexity of the challenge facing the industry means there is not going to be any one size fits all approach. The role of metro mayors will be important as they can create local transport solutions that work for their area but they can also learn from each other and encourage greater innovation by trialling different approaches in different areas. One point it will be important to remember however is the need for cooperation across different regions. There are many who will commute into the cities run by metro mayors but live outside its boundaries and they must not be forgotten.

We learned that in the coming months, the Transport Select Committee will be taking evidence from metro mayors about how they handled public transport throughout the crisis and their plans for the future of transport.

 

Looking to the future: Beyond Covid-19

 

The overall feeling of the panel was that we shouldn’t simply return back to the status quo. Covid-19, whilst causing major disruption, has given us an opportunity to do things differently, and any recovery package needs to cement this change. There was an emphasis on the need for a ‘green recovery’ which promotes cleaner, greener, more sustainable transport at its heart.

Whatever the Covid-19 recovery looks like, what is certain is that it is going to come up against Brexit, the US/UK trade talks and many other factors that will have an impact on the security and future of the transport sector as a whole and the automotive sector in particular. This will have an impact in terms of talent, data, research and development and production.

The industry is coming up against multiple challenges on all fronts, it needs to be prepared and ready to embrace the changes coming.

 

 

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5 ways communications will change after Covid-19

Covid-19 has enforced a huge impact on all our lives, professionally and personally, and has caused a huge shift in the way we communicate with each other.

The Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, summarised the change by saying that “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months”. Looking beyond this incredible rapid change to the channels we are using to communicate, there has also been a noticeable shift in how businesses are talking to their staff, customers, investors and broader stakeholder community.

But how much of that has been a necessary response to the crisis, and what will endure as lockdown measures are eased?

We take a deeper dive into five things that have changed for good in the communications landscape:

 

1) How businesses communicate

The nature of the Covid-19 crisis has forced businesses and leaders to communicate frequently and openly to employees, customers, shareholders and suppliers.

We have quite literally seen into each other’s lives through a constant stream of video calling, a previously undreamt-of insight into our colleague’s personal lives.

This transparency has forced leaders to embrace authenticity, be more empathetic and available than they would have been ordinarily, which has been valued by employees.

Remote working is likely to endure for the foreseeable future, but even once things return to a more normal footing businesses and leaders would do well to maintain regular and authentic communications – their stakeholders will now be expecting it.

As the situation evolves, businesses are going to need to think strategically about how they manage their communications across a variety of scenarios and channels depending on what the recovery looks like.

Planning for this should be a top priority.

 

2) The value of being seen as a responsible business

Consumers, regulators, MPs, government, employees (both current and future) and the media have all been watching how businesses have behaved during this crisis. Select Committees are already holding inquiries into how some industries have behaved.

Business who have taken financial support from the government whilst paying out dividends or bonuses will be questioned; high executive pay will look even more unpalatable in an era with potentially record levels of unemployment.

This increased scrutiny will only increase the importance of corporate responsibility, or ESG (environmental, social and governance) as it is called in the investment world.

Businesses will need to be able to demonstrate their impact above and beyond profit – their tax strategy, social impact, climate strategy, supply chains, employment practices will all be under the microscope from a variety of stakeholders.

Companies that don’t have a positive story to tell on responsibility will need to develop one. And organisations who want government to listen will need to be able to show they have a positive, helpful and responsible impact on society.

 

3) Resilience, risk and crisis preparedness

Every organisation’s business continuity plans have been tested over the past few weeks and going forward more organisations will take risk planning seriously.

The new reality will demand it – every business will need to make judgement calls about acceptable levels of risk for their employees to return to work and how they operate over the next 18 months.

Reputational risks will be rife in the ‘new normal’, businesses will need make sure they are ready. Organisations without crisis communications plans and risk registers, regularly updated and reviewed as standard, will also put these in place so they are prepared for the next time.

Stakeholder lists need to be reviewed and updated, channel strategies and messaging refreshed, and tone of voice carefully adjusted.

Leaders should think about ensuring their media training is up to scratch, their knowledge of the messaging locked down.

Finally, businesses should make sure they appoint dedicated issues and crises team with clear roles and responsibilities assigned.

Some will already have all of this in place and will simply need to review and update, others will be starting from scratch.

In the ‘new normal’ not being prepared is not an option.

 

4) Government will be looking for solutions

The financial impact of Covid-19 for the public purse will be felt for years to come – bailout measures plus significant reductions to expected tax income will threaten the Government’s ambitious spending plans unveiled in the Budget just a few short weeks ago.

The government will be looking for creative ways to plug that shortfall, but where to target tax rises will be highly controversial.

To make matters worse, don’t forget this is a newly elected Government, elected by a swathe of new Conservative voters in traditional Labour seats who’s battle cry has been to “level up” Britain.

However, what is a headache for the Government is an opportunity for business.

Creative, bold and eye-catching policies, assuming they have minimal or even positive revenue implications, will be welcomed.

Anything that can be seen to contribute to the recovery from Covid-19 or creates jobs will be listened to.

It seems a way off now, but with an election in 2024 businesses should think about how they can help the government find a legacy that can they can take to the ballot box.

 

5) The return of the experts

During the 2016 Referendum, Michael Gove famously told Sky News that “people in this country have had enough of experts” and for much of the following years that appeared to have been prophetic.

Emotion, rather than evidence, has been in the ascendancy, with how they voted in the divisive 2016 ballot seen as the decisive motivating factor behind decision making.

Covid-19 has turned all of that on its head, the experts are back.

The Government’s entire communications message has been that our response is “led by scientists”, even to the extent of giving unprecedented airtime to the Chief Medical and Chief Scientific Officers, roles few in the general public would previously have been aware of.

In the post-Covid environment businesses will have an opportunity to offer their expertise to government and position themselves as authorities in areas where they have specialisms. We have seen how government is keen to work with businesses during the crisis through programmes like the Ventilator Challenge, and that mindset will continue through the recovery.

Where organisations can provide evidence bases, insight or add to the public discourse they should seize those opportunities, people will be listening.

 


 

As we move into Phase 2 of the Covid-19 crisis, there will be continued uncertainty to navigate we tentatively ease elements of the lockdown.

Some businesses will be aching to revert to normality as soon as possible, but things will not go back to the status quo – markets and attitudes will have evolved in response to the pandemic, and not all businesses will respond to their new environment.

As we discover what the ‘new normal’ looks like, those that succeed will have learnt some valuable lessons from the past few weeks, not just about video calling and remote working, but fundamental shifts in how they can and should approach communications.

Those that heed those lessons can flourish, for those that don’t there may be more challenges to come.

 

 

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How your business will need to communicate as the lockdown changes

There is no doubt it’s time for businesses to prepare for their second stage of communications in response to the Covid-19 lockdown.

The first phase of communications we all witnessed firsthand: the urgent rush to communicate changes in business practices to employees, customers and beyond, along with rapid government lobbying, in response to the lockdown.

But there is a shift happening now that the country is trying to define how and when lockdown will end – or continue to change shape over the coming months. This ‘new normal’ is going to require even more sensitivity in how businesses communicate their messages.

This crisis has impacted every business, whether for good or bad, and certainly every individual.

Communications that now ignore such a seismic change will be seen as inauthentic and simply won’t resonate with audiences. Remember, good communication always focuses on understanding your audience: and every business is guaranteed that their audience is thinking about Covid-19 and how it will continue to impact their personal life.

All businesses need to apply a new lens to their communications as a result.

This means the tone of voice and nuance of your messages are more important than ever. A tokenistic nod to Covid-19 in your communications won’t suffice.

It’s time to take a thoughtful look at how you can adapt your company’s messages to maturely acknowledge the worry that is in the community, along with the very real need for businesses to be moving ahead with their economic recovery.

Our recent webinar unpacked this change, exploring how businesses can practically manage their communications during this time.

We hope you find this advice useful as you take a look at your messages, the different scenarios you are planning for, the channels of communication you are using, and tips for communicating with your different audience groups.

It’s likely not going to be ’business as usual’ for some time still. So don’t make the mistake of ‘communications as usual’.

 

To watch a recording of WA’s recent webinar ‘After the Shock: Managing the Recovery’ please enter your details below:

 

 

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Getting (and keeping) the attention of government

With Parliament in full swing, a ministerial and departmental reshuffle and a budget fast approaching, WA Communications have set out 8 pieces of advice for businesses seeking to make a quick impact with the new government.

Get in touch if you’d like to discuss how WA Communications can help you make your campaign as impactful as possible.

 

Localise campaigns in local issues

Newly elected MPs are being inundated with requests to meet and demands for their attention and time. Their priorities will be to first and foremost serve their constituents and focus on issues in their patch. Many will already be thinking ahead to holding their seat in the next election. Understanding the issues they care about locally and finding alignment with your campaign by interrogating national data and applying it to their concerns can attract energetic and powerful advocates which the government cannot easily ignore.

 

Find new sources of scrutiny

With the official Opposition distracted for the next few months on their internal leadership battle, the role of holding the government to account needs to be fulfilled elsewhere. With the Select Committee Chair elections imminent, getting in quick to engage with clerks and committee members to suggest areas of inquiry and offer up potential witnesses that can shed new light on their chosen topics is essential.  The All Party Parliamentary Groups are re-forming too. When effectively organised and well attended, these cross party groups of Parliamentarians can be hugely influential in conducting deep dive inquiries, supporting pre-legislative scrutiny, and making powerful recommendations to bring oxygen to under-recognised issues. Early signs are that Minsters are taking notice. Understanding the agendas and priorities of the officers is an essential starting point.

 

Get to grips with the parties within the party

In addition to the formal scrutiny provided by select committees and the issue specific work of APPGs, understanding the power and role of factions, groups and caucuses within the Conservative Party is key.  With the One Nation Caucus now numbering around 90 members (c.25% of the parliamentary party) they represent a powerful voting block in their own right – outnumbering the ERG who had the ‘whip hand’ exerting influence over Theresa May’s government.  Understanding how cohesive these groups are, the extent to which they act together as block and the priorities they are pursuing is hugely important when building parliamentary support for campaigns.

 

Understand the dynamics of the class of 2019

Another dividing line to be aware of is how unified the 2019 intake are. There are already signs of fissures and tensions between MPs representing long held traditionally Conservative seats and the new formally ‘red wall’ breakthrough seats, including on HS2 and where further infrastructure investment is to be targeted. Some of the new MPs may feel that their colleagues in safer seats are at risk of taking their electorate for granted. This is only set to continue as this parliament goes on and as the differences in approach and priority come to the surface. It is paramount to make sure you don’t assume all 2019 intake MPs think along the same lines, and inadvertently alienate those with a different perspective.

 

Using the reshuffle to your advantage

We know it’s coming and we know it’s going to be big. It’s easy to get caught up in the Westminster village gossip and schadenfreude-loaded tales of personal ambition missed, hubris punished and new influencers and decision makers rising to the top. But beyond the natural love of gossip, the substance really matters. How will the priorities of the government be advanced by changes in government machinery? For example, will a rebirth of DECC (possibly rebadged as the Dept for Achieving Net Zero?) really herald a renewed focus on carbon reduction across government? Those who remember engaging with the old DECC will fear a department out on a limb and separated from key decision makers in HMT, No10 and Business. Who gets this role as Secretary of State, the extent of their political capital, and their proximity to power will all have a bearing on the impact of this new department with a massive job to do. This time around it should have the full weight of a Conservative majority government behind it, rather than being inherited from a Labour government or being the product of a Coalition, so the next Secretary of State should be encouraged and cultivated to live up to their billing as the true champion of climate issues in this government.

 

Showcase your solutions

The government is in the market for success stories, they’ve laid out their agenda in the Queens Speech and now it’s all about ‘delivery’. But with huge challenges to address ranging from achieving net zero, fixing the social care crisis and carving out a role for the UK in the industries of the future, they need help. So, how can you contribute? What innovative UK companies are plugging away behind the scenes with clever ideas, world leading innovation, and new ways of working that can help solve policy challenges or bring new economic activity to the UK? Evidence is key of course, but the government wants to hear new voices come to the fore – and with investment in R&D, they are willing to put money on the table to help UK business to succeed.

 

Follow the money and make it talk

Despite the much trumpeted ‘end of austerity’ and a new era of public service investment, money is still tight. All eyes are on the Budget on 11th March and reworked rules for the Treasury to target public investment to address regional inequalities, supporting wellbeing in the north and improving productivity in the south. But day to day spending is expected to continue within the current fiscal framework. So, private sector investment is sorely needed to drive growth alongside increased public funding. The role of business, backed by patient capital, infrastructure funds, social impact investors, VCTs and private equity bringing new capital to bear to help deliver social and policy outcomes is clear. This role is under appreciated at present and much more can be done to showcase the vital contribution made by institutional investors and the additional room for manoeuvre they’d seek to do even more.

 

Use people-powered stories

Using data wisely and presenting it in a visually impactful way is only one part of the challenge. What is the human impact of your campaign, who is affected, in what areas of the country? Building a live file of individualised case studies to support your case is a must. Paint a picture of the upside to be gained from a positive policy intervention, and highlight the human impact of the risk of inaction. Bring real voices and faces to the forefront and let them tell their own stories.

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What ever happened to trust?

One of the oldest anecdotes that PR professionals roll out when media training senior executives is the impact of the Kennedy-Nixon Presidential debate in 1960. It was the first televised Presidential debate and while the radio audience called it a draw, the television audience decisively called it for the younger, healthier-looking and simply more televisual senator from Boston, shifting the tide of the election and ultimately the result.

Kennedy had looked and sounded presidential – in appearance, tone and content he had demonstrated he was made of the ‘right stuff’ and the public could put their trust in him.

Fast-forward nearly sixty years from Kennedy-Nixon, and we rolled onto last night and the latest edition in the long running series of candidate television debates, the Johnson-Corbyn match-up; and how things have changed.

While the pundits are divided on which candidate edged a close debate, they almost unanimously refer to the wider issue of whether either of the candidates met that most basic of expectation of voters by telling the truth.

The reason why media trainers reference the Kennedy-Nixon debate is to emphasise the need to come across as authentic, truthful and trustworthy. Messages are to be delivered clearly, backed up with evidence and proof points. Businesses and business-leaders rely on consumer trust and when this trust is proven to be unfounded, the company can face the sort of crisis that can destroy the brand.

Imagine for one moment if the CEO of a confectioners told a series of demonstrable falsehoods about their products and their rival’s products. Further still, imagine this CEO kept on saying them despite protests, so much so that a cottage industry of consumer groups was created in repudiating and pointing out this ‘fake news’. Then imagine that business deciding to set up a fake consumer group to attack their rivals or the evidence in front of them.

We have been here with the tobacco industry, who have been labelled as the pioneers of fake news, and other industries seeking to dissemble or cover up. Modern business practices, however, embrace engagement, transparency, clear values, fiscal prudence, demonstrable action and truthfulness, as they search for the goal of strong brand trust from consumers, policy makers and opinion formers.

The striking thing about this election campaign is the extraordinary decision of both major parties to ignore these fundamental building blocks of trust. When you have a situation of record levels of public doubt in the democratic system and our leaders, you don’t double down on the very things undermining that trust, you change your approach.

It is probably about time that our political parties looked to the playbook of modern business practices and corporate communications if they are to rebuild the trust between the public and our democracy.

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