COVID-19: Corporate comms should take a leaf from the management consultancy handbook

Were you prepared for everything that’s happened in the past month? Did you have comms plans in place to address a situation like this? Thought not. But it’s worth asking why not.

It’s time to take the long view if you want to survive, argues Gabe Winn
It’s time to take the long view if you want to survive, argues Gabe Winn

Coronavirus isn’t a ‘black swan’ event that no one could have predicted – we had clear warnings from bird ‘flu, swine ‘flu, and SARS. So why has this pandemic caught UK plc off-guard?

The answer partly lies in the lack of strategic thinking in communications teams, and this needs to change rapidly if the profession is to maintain its credibility.

I’ve argued before that corporate comms is stuck in a short-term, reactive, tactical funk – media training to avoid answering a question, lobbying to maintain the status quo, and a focus on shareholders above all else – and that it needs to learn from disciplines like advertising and political campaigning.

But in this time of seismic change, when even the most established companies may not survive, corporate comms needs to learn from an entirely different discipline: management consultancy.

No one can predict exactly what the world will look like after COVID-19, but we can plan for it based on a number of possible social, economic, and political outcomes, and it’s here that management consultancy excels.

Management consultants spend a huge amount of time scenario planning to help organisations create decades-long strategies and investment decisions.

Using human insight and statistical data, scenario planning creates a range of plausible futures and prepares for them.

Robust scenario planning takes time, but there are two questions comms leaders should be asking immediately: first, what are we doing today that could help or haunt us in future?

Second, what future scenarios do we need to start preparing for now?

We know that businesses will be asked what they did to help during ‘the war’, and those with a poor answer will suffer.

Public sentiment drives political will, and that’s already playing out: some of the country’s biggest brands will fail because they’ve treated employees badly, profiteered, or paid dividends while coming cap-in-hand to the taxpayer, and politicians won’t tolerate it.

Behaviour that would previously have been a reputational risk is now an existential one.

But scenario planning isn’t just about preparing for crises.

Comms leaders should be thinking about how the virus affects megatrends like migration, climate change, technology, and an ageing population; how the relationship between business, consumers, and politicians will change; how people will be educated, compensated, and work; how some of the ‘crazy’ policy ideas of the past five years may not be so crazy after all; how all of this could affect what your business does and says; and what resource you need in place to prepare for and manage it.

Everyone in comms talks about strategy, but few understand it well.

The virus means that business will have to undergo dramatic change, and corporate comms teams must influence that change; learning how management consultants use strategy and scenario planning will give them the tools and credibility to do it well.

Gabe Winn is chief executive of Blakeney and a former management consultant


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