C-suite leaders seek comms consultancy during pandemic

Business leaders are more cognisant about purpose-driven goals and employee engagement during Covid, leading to an increase in C-suite comms counsel at this time.

Sixty five percent of employees expect CEOs and leaders to address the current situation and impart information more so than waiting for governments to do so. This data, revealed in Edelman's 2020 Trust Barometer, shows that leaders know there are great expectations from the public and they're aware of the overall perception that businesses can be an impetus for change, but yet, lack competent delivery.

Other data from the Trust Barometer show that CEOs face greater responsibility than before: 76 percent of consumers say that CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for governments to impose it; 71 percent of employees expect their employer to deliver greater purpose; 84 percent of investors say that maximising shareholder returns can no longer be the primary goal of the corporation; and 98 percent of investors think public companies are urgently obligated to address one or more societal issues.

According to Yvonne Koh, EVP, head of corporate at Edelman APAC, these factors have led to a rise in demand for communications advisory as C-suite executives are starting to see that having strategic communications counsel at the table allows them to understand how their business decisions can impact their constituents. Counsel also provides leaders with a "well-balanced and human perspective" before implementing any decisions, she adds.

"Business leaders who recognise this are seeking communications advisory early on. They hold the responsibility of steering the company and its employees, and they are aware that their business decisions can have an impact on their communities and the markets they operate in," says Koh.

Adam Harper, founder and managing director at Ashbury Communications, says that we have now reached the age of the CEO as communicator. "C-suite leaders have grasped that audiences are highly sensitive to how companies are seen to have acted during a crisis on this scale and taken advice to ensure that their words and actions match those expectations. Getting this right can be a meaningful strategic point of difference, delivering better outcomes with clients, investors, employees and other stakeholders," he says.

According to HS Chung, Asia president at H+K Strategies, C-suite clients are increasingly seeking professional advice particularly in areas of corporate and brand reputation during the pandemic. "I believe this is also due to consumers demanding corporations for authentic, transparent and purpose-driven communication activities," she says.

Comms challenges for C-suite executives

CEO hurdles at this time will naturally vary, but Chung says that one of the main challenges is in changing their internal organisation systems and processes to be able to activate change externally.

Harper echoes this thought: "The pandemic is like a hydra in the challenges it poses across employee wellbeing, customer safety, revenues, costs, operational efficiency and so many other areas. But the underlying challenge for the C-suite is in balancing short-term and long-term imperatives."

He adds that clients in some sectors can be so focused on short-term business survival that they risk losing sight of long-term strategic priorities such as environmental and social issues, gender equality in the workplace, or digital adoption. Some are also so focused on weathering the storm in their business that they are reluctant to engage proactively with employees, media, investors or other stakeholders.

"That's completely understandable but it's not sustainable, because the pandemic is also accelerating long-term trends like ESG and digital transformation, bringing them forward from the future to the present," says Harper. "Our advice to CEOs is that this crisis increases the need to be visible, authentic and bold in communicating with all audiences."

Vivian Lines, CEO at Lines Consulting, says that some business-related challenges that may arise are raising capital, downsizing, switching production, protecting reputation, identifying new distribution channels, and motivating employees.

"But there are also opportunities" he adds. "The pandemic and WFH have given some C-suite executives more time to focus on the real priorities of their business. This may mean rapid implementation of digitalisation or ecommerce. That prioritisation has put their companies in a much stronger position to cope."

Koh's Edelman says that leaders are currently facing economic uncertainties alongside many macro societal changes, which are occurring simultaneously with varying degrees of public emotional response.

"Their teams and the public are closely scrutinizing how business executives make decisions and whether they are being transparent. Most importantly, C-suite executives are being held accountable to follow their words with actions on how they manage the well-being of their employees, help partners survive an unpredictable environment and support their customers, communities as well as the environment," she says.

This increased scrutiny on business practices goes hand-in-hand with Trust Barometer data showing that two thirds of people think that brands are using important societal and political issues simply as a marketing ploy to sell products.

The changing landscape of employee engagement

While all companies need to be able to explain to stakeholders their purpose or why they exist, Lines says this is even more important in the pandemic when companies need to demonstrate how their business is having a positive impact on their employees and other stakeholders.

"Helping companies to define a purpose is one part of our work, but it is also important to help implement and audit that implementation to ensure authenticity. This takes working with other professionals in risk management or with environmental policy specialists to ensure a holistic and ethical approach to purpose implementation," he says.

Harper concurs: "Your purpose or your 'why' is what will create sustainable differentiation for your company. Your products and services can be copied, but your authentic purpose is uniquely yours."

He adds that employee engagement has also shifted, with more CEOs understanding that internal communication equals external communication. "This means that all communication needs to be aligned. We have seen a marked increase in C-suite leaders focusing on employee communications as a strategic communications channel and an appetite to strengthen their capabilities in this area," he says.

Edelman's Koh says while the pandemic has overhauled the way people work on a massive scale and in a compressed time period, CEOs are realising that a high level of employee engagement is a response to effective leadership. This means being transparent, delivering on employee promises consistently and being empathetic as a leader.

H+K's Chung says that since the pandemic, expectations from C-suite communications have become "stronger". She adds that employees are watching the authenticity and transparency of their leaders' messages and the way they're being delivered. Plus, employees are more vocal than ever before to express their views on social channels.

"This is why internal communication strategies has become very important since Covid and I believe it will become even more important post-Covid," she says.

This article first appeared on prweek.com.

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