Coronavirus – the silver lining for internal communicators

It’s been the week from hell for internal communicators. However, the impacts of the coronavirus crisis have a silver lining for our profession. We should act to seize the opportunity which has been presented by the outbreak and not let it slip through our (washed) hands.

It’s been the week from hell for internal communicators. On Monday 16 March 2020 (what now seems like a lifetime ago as I write this) the UK government announced that citizens in the UK were to begin social distancing to try to control the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

From that moment the realities of what that would mean for employees and their workplaces began to hit home. Business continuity and incident teams went into overdrive and the demands on internal communicators to communicate their decisions grew almost as exponentially as the virus was spreading in the general population.

At times, it’s probably felt like a fast-moving motorway pile up as every team and function has tried to communicate what their part of the organisation would be doing to implement the decisions being made by the government and their own leaders. One responsibility for internal communicators has been to act as the traffic police to try and ensure that there is effective sequencing and co-ordination of communications – the good practice concepts which seem to mostly elude others inside organisations at the best of times.

This week’s unfolding apocalypse has also elicited a huge deluge of blogs, guides, webinars, podcasts and social posts as the wider internal communications community has pulled together to help everyone up their game with crisis communications. It’s demonstrated once again what a cohesive and supportive community we are, and one which I am proud to be a part of.

I think that there is more than enough out there already on crisis communications good practice, so in this blog I’m going to take a different tack and tell you what the silver lining of the coronavirus outbreak will be for internal communicators, because there is one and it’s a biggy if we choose to exploit it as an opportunity.

It’s exposed what IC is currently ‘for’ and what it should really be ‘for’ in some organisations

For far too long our function has been regarded in many organisations as the thing which sorts and directs the internal messaging and hits the publish button on the intranet. When instead, it should be an integral part of the strategic management of the organisation helping it to achieve its objectives – including dealing with the implications and impacts of a pandemic.

No doubt, for some internal communicators the last week has been an opportunity to dispense strategic communications advice in abundance. However, for many others it will have been a disappointing and frustrating experience with their advice being ignored and them simply being told what to do by the ‘comms clueless’.

For all internal communicators it will have exposed or affirmed the ‘value spaces’* which they currently occupy in their organisation and maybe, just maybe, provoked leaders to think about the value spaces internal communication should really be occupying.

It’s highlighted that investment is required in channels and resources, and that this has been neglected for years

In organisations, internal communication is usually the poor relation of its richer and better resourced cousins – marketing, press/media and corporate communication. Many internal communicators rely on creaking intranets, basic email distribution clients, free digital tools and ridiculously elaborate workarounds on IT platforms designed for other purposes to do their work.

It’s at times like these that the limitations of these systems which form the bedrock of what we do, and the basic lack of hands on deck to do the work, are brought into sharp focus for managers and leaders in organisations.

It’s exposed to some colleagues for the first time that there is an internal communications function in their organisation

This week some internal communicators will have made first contact with colleagues and stakeholders who didn’t know that they even existed at all.  

The need to quickly and effectively communicate what was happening will have forced some stakeholders and colleagues to urgently seek the help of a professional communicator, and not default to their usual inadequate DIY approaches. They will have discovered that people who possess those professional skills actually do exist in their organisation.

No doubt, their requests will have been dealt with quickly and efficiently. After all, responding to last minute communication requests and working flexibly to deal with an ever-moving feast of priorities is what internal communicators do best. This will have been noticed by colleagues, perhaps for the first time.

The silver lining

When all of this is over, there will no doubt be a dissection inside most organisations of what happened, how effective their response was to the crisis and what damage was done to operational performance, reputation and the bottom line.

These reviews, and the efforts to learn and do it better next time, will be the time for internal communicators to strike and press home the business case for a more strategic role, more investment in channels and resources and a higher profile inside the organisation.

The silver lining of the coronavirus outbreak is the opportunity it will afford for internal communicators to hold up the evidence of what they did, how they did it, and how it could have been done better. It is a fantastic opportunity to tell that story based on factual evidence rather than theory and supposition.

Let’s seize this opportunity and not let it slip through our (washed) hands.

Martin

*There is more about ‘value spaces’ (Getting the basics right; Driving outcomes; Supporting others; Building intangible assets) in the excellent recent book by Liam Fitzpatrick and Sue Dewhurst ‘Successful Employee Communications’.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay 

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