It is often said that that it takes a crisis for a company, more specifically its executive team, to appreciate and recognise the value of a strong corporate communications function with senior management-level leadership.
If that is truly the case, the comms function will be due a widespread recalibration of its importance and value when this COVID-19 crisis comes to an end.
The comms capabilities of larger companies, particularly those with substantial and often dispersed workforces, are being simultaneously tested as never before. Gaps and shortcomings are inevitably going to be exposed, and indeed already have been in some cases.
This is not just because of the unprecedented scale and gravity of this crisis. It is more because corporate communications and/or affairs, unlike most other corporate functions, is still far from being an established c-suite function, with the level and calibre of leadership that this infers. Many large companies have a comms function, but no recognised senior leader of that function.
In the FTSE 100 itself, for instance, 22 per cent of companies do not have a senior-level director of communications/affairs, and this figure increases to 33 per cent in the bottom half of the FTSE 100. These companies are generally lower-profile, b2b companies, operating in comparatively unregulated and unpoliticised sectors. In such companies, senior-level corporate advice, insight and expertise is not deemed as business-critical and the comms function is largely activity-focused and reactive.
But in times of crisis, when companies are more highly scrutinised and are judged by (and remembered for) their response, experienced and high-calibre communications executives are worth their weight in gold.
Crisis communications – how, why, what and when a company communicates – is a very large component of its handling of a crisis, and it happens to be the part that everyone can see.
Knowing how to communicate authentically, empathetically (particularly to employees) and appropriately is incredibly important, and this does not always come naturally to CEOs. As such they need advice, and they are more likely to have confidence and trust in that advice if it comes from someone with real weight and authority.
Good communications directors also ask the questions that others on the executive committee will not have thought of, questions that sometimes prompt important discussions that might otherwise not have been had.
These are questions that a less-experienced comms professional may not think of or not have the courage to ask – and, crucially, often won’t be in the room to ask.
Similarly, companies tend to be introspective, and a comms director can help prevent an organisation from taking decisions in a vacuum by contextualising them. Decisions, particularly in a crisis, that cannot be made without intelligent and sensitive consideration given to: how they should be articulated and positioned (taking into account both the desired outcome and stakeholder expectations); how they are likely to land and play out; and whether they are consistent with the overall narrative and purpose of the organisation.
Getting any of these wrong could easily and unnecessarily damage reputation and credibility.
Doing the right thing, and being seen to do the right thing, is crucial, and it is all too easy in this ultra-critical world to do the wrong thing without realising it.
A good communications director can highlight the unintended consequences of a particular course of action that others, more inward-looking, just won’t have seen or have appreciated. It is a basic form of reputation risk management and it means that the comms function has to have the clout to influence executive level decision-making.
The power, reach and immediacy of social media have accelerated the pace at which events can move in a crisis. This can induce panic among senior executives, further underlining the need for someone at the top table who understands this dynamic, can advise and plan accordingly, and do so with a calm head. Someone who understands that keeping control of the narrative is paramount, as is transparency, as is sustaining a constant flow of relevant and helpful information, since any news vacuum will quickly be filled by speculation.
COVID-19 and the requirement to constantly communicate with employees, as well as external stakeholders, will have left a number of chief executives and executive teams feeling exposed and vulnerable.
Nick Helsby is chief executive of executive search firm Watson Helsby