Paddy Harverson - Co-Founder, Milltown Partners
Paddy shared his insights on how companies, organisations and leaders can best communicate through the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond, drawing both on the industry-leading work and research of Milltown Partners and an exceptional career that has seen him lead the communications functions of the Royal Household and Manchester United.
The key takeaways from our conversation, featuring leaders from public, private, private equity and venture capital-backed businesses from across the world, are summarized below.
Empathy in what you say – and do – must be core to any communications strategy
The Covid-19 pandemic is clearly a political and economic crisis, but primarily, it’s a crisis of people. Leaders – political or corporate – must remember this, always ensuring their words and actions are human, humble and honest. The principles of good communications – clarity, consistency and candour – matter now more than ever.
We live in the age of extreme transparency, with colleagues, customers, general public and the media now looking to call out businesses and people for hypocrisy or a lack of humanity. As the recent Black Lives Matters reactions to certain businesses have shown, communications are as much about what you do as what you say.
This is a time for clarity, honesty, human touch and some optimism
In recent months, politicians, more used to demonstrating strength through their control and knowledge, have struggled to adjust their tone. During a pandemic, it’s the virus that’s in charge, not you.
In unprecedented times, leaders need to admit what they don’t know, can’t predict and can’t control. They also need to have the humility to admit they have made mistakes, and will most likely continue to as events unfold. Where political leaders have failed to take this advice, they have been roundly ridiculed.
Notably, female leaders have performed better than their male counterparts. Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merker and Mette Frederiksen have all been praised for their national leadership, combining competence and clarity and that vital human touch.
In the UK, The Queen’s message to the nation captured all of these virtues:
“We will succeed, and that success will belong to every one of us. We should take comfort that, while we may still have more to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again: we will meet again”
It had it all – humanity, empathy and realism. It also featured optimism, which matters a great deal. People are looking to their leaders for a way out of this.
In the corporate world, Arne Sorensen, CEO of Marriott Hotels delivered a masterclass in how to communicate in a message to colleagues on the challenges the company faced, including job cuts. He simply said: “here are the facts.”
That honesty won him praise, and points to what will be required in a new age for leaders: a willingness to show humility and vulnerability in their communications.
“What did you do during the war daddy?” The transformation of the reputational landscape
This crisis is going to reshape the reputational landscape as much as it does the business and political landscapes, with winners and losers emerging.
We will see employees and customers alike asking the modern-day equivalent of the pointed question coined during the First World War: “What did you do in the war daddy?” as they assess whether the organisations they associate themselves with prioritised their people and society, or their bottom lines through the crisis.
Those who have taken taxpayer money through government schemes will face scrutiny around the lengths they are going to in order to repay their debt to society. Going forward, they will be held to a higher account. Conversely, the businesses who turned down money, such as Unilever and Burberry, will be remembered for choosing to stand on their own two feet, emerging from the pandemic with a powerful reputational enhancement.
Internal communications are now key
Internal comms, traditionally the ugly sister of communications, has really come to the fore in this crisis.
Remember – internal comms is now external comms. What you say to your people is first and foremost what they say to their friends and family. Plus, as we know, everything inside almost always gets out, so you have to make sure your external and internal narratives are aligned.
As corporate internal messages now move from crisis to recovery, it will be vital to communicate constantly with employees, guiding them through new, equally uncharted waters with as much clarity as you are able to give.
Planning for the future
Research is a vital tool in crafting your messages, as leaders and organisations. Tracking the opinions of your staff, customers and wider society as the crisis and its aftermath unfold, understanding what really drives behaviour, will heavily influence your messages and actions.
As the economy starts to recover, now is the time to start talking about the future. The question is: how will you and your company do your bit in the future to rebuild the economy and wider society?
Stories of adaptation and innovation will land very well. The media will look to paint a positive picture of the world into 2021 and beyond.
Journalists are futurists – they want to talk about what tomorrow will look like, and innovative technology companies will play a central role in that story, as their ideas and products help the world to recover.
With thanks to our Forum Attendees:
Stephen Rosenthal is a Partner at Founders Keepers and the facilitator of the CEO/MD Forum, a global virtual meeting for senior leaders of the world’s most dynamic businesses, across every asset class, sector and geography.
If you would like to join the CEO/MD Forum or learn more, please don’t hesitate to contact Stephen on email@example.com or +44 7725 144 124.