Purpose, partnerships and people: autumn challenges for corporate comms pros

Lenin once said there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen – this feels like such a time.

We’re just at the end of the beginning of seeing the impact of COVID-19 disruption, says HSBC's Lalu Dasgupta

New technologies, geopolitics and demographics were disrupting the landscape anyway. Now the pandemic has upended the calculus – accelerating trends, overthrowing orthodoxies and causing a sea-change in values and attitudes.

While businesses have had to reset, volatility in everything from consumer behaviour to entire industry models makes further resets likely. The priority for comms will be to ensure firms can remain connected and relevant to key audiences.

Entwined with society 

The pandemic will take the imperative of corporate purpose and delivering on environmental sustainability goals further and faster. It’s been referred to as a new age of ‘corporate social justice’. Firms will need to identify where they can make a difference and show they are part of the solution.

A new activism means the downtrodden or the left-behinds may no longer accept injustices. Businesses that fail to recognise this could become a lightning rod for activism and lose access to capital.

Closer to partners  

The pandemic has spurred great advances in innovation. It has also exposed the frailties of supply chains and fragility of customer demand. Add Brexit uncertainty and it’s clear comms will need to partner operations closely.

Dialogue with supply chains should be designed to provide support and give an early signal of problems. With customers, the goal will be to burnish ‘preferred partner’ credentials. Demonstrating genuine thought leadership, innovation and holistic solutions will support the rational case. So too will showcasing reliability.

Yet the ‘human touch’ is key – prompting greater use of audience segmentation and the leveraging of AI and big data.

Employee comms to the fore

In terms of business failures and job cuts, the outlook remains unclear. Airbnb’s Brian Chesky set the bar when communicating job losses – speaking in human terms with empathy, honesty, transparency and offering tangible support. As important will be the need to communicate with those that remain. 

Keeping employees engaged and motivated will require open channels of communication and the use of storytelling to focus on future direction, the value of innovation and flexibility. For returning employees, comms will also need to build trust and reassurance, and help to create a shared sense of purpose.  

But many employees won’t return this year. While staff may have thrived in the initial crisis, research shows fatigue and despondency may set in. Staff surveys and emphatic, motivational comms will be needed to overcome productivity falls. 

We’re just at the end of the beginning of seeing the impact of COVID-19 disruption. Opportunities will emerge. Be ready to grasp them – the pace of change will only quicken.

Lalu Dasgupta, head of comms for Trade at HSBC, is writing in a personal capacity; his views don’t necessarily represent those of his employer.

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