By Mike Klein and Brad Whitworth, Senior Advisors, Smarp Strategic Services
“A war is won before it is fought.” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War
It is difficult to understate the damage that has so far been unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Forced closures, sweeping layoffs, consumer insecurity and intense pressure on liquidity are only some of the consequences that enterprises around the globe have been facing.
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But for those companies that have so far survived, the time has come to do the thinking — and take the actions — required to position themselves as winners. At some point soon the initial panic of the pandemic will give way to the next phase: the road to emotional and financial recovery.
In any story of change, the first step forward requires an acknowledgment of what is likely to remain substantially true. For the next stage of the COVID-19 situation, these trends are acknowledged to be inevitable:
- There is no imminent vaccine. Indeed, there is no effective treatment yet.
- Social distancing will be a continued requirement in most places. In some places, it will be very difficult to enforce.
- Companies and individuals will be tightly constrained financially.
- High unemployment rates and deeply reduced in-house staff resources will be the norm.
The result — regardless of whether you are “heading back to the office” or continuing to work remotely, things will not be going back to where they were.
Internal comms is certainly not going back to where it was before the crisis. That’s not just because so many IC teams worldwide delivered effective under-intense-pressure crisis work and helped their organizations maintain coherence and operational stability during the early phase of COVID-19. It’s because the role of internal communication — and the leverage it delivers — has changed radically in the last four months.
And hats off to internal communications pros who delivered solid programs with one arm tied behind their backs. With arcane all-staff emails, one-size-fits-all messaging and cobbled-together distribution lists, communicators often had to work twice as hard as ever to overcome inherent weaknesses in the channels, methods and strategies they were forced to use.
Change is upon us
Today, with social distancing and remote working in place, the center of the organization is no longer your headquarters building. It is now your internal communication platform.
Your IC platform is more than physical infrastructure — more than just a visible space or yet another IT application that reinforces your visual brand while delivering content.
The platform epitomizes the digital transformation that must provide connective tissue to facilitate and personalize ideas, themes, conversations and imperatives and deliver them through an interface that your people will either appreciate and see as the corporate equivalent of what they’ve chosen to load on their personal smartphones — or which they will find inconvenient and burdensome.
The platform also brings to life the organization’s authoritative voice — helping to drive and prioritize short-term action, while being a critical lifeline for newly hired staff who must drive much of their own onboarding remotely. Of course, it will carry messages from senior executives. And it will allow internal influencers to amplify and provide additional credible context and perspective.
The emerging centrality of the internal communication platform also injects a new emphasis on strategy and differentiation, raising three key questions:
- Should you settle for tools that are merely good enough?
- How is an “internal communication strategy” different in times like these?
- Where should you go for IC strategy support?
Should you settle for tools that are “good enough”?
It depends on what you want to achieve and how hard you want to fight for being properly armed for the next “war.”
If you simply want to show that you’ve been listening to your remaining staff and demonstrate some improvements, there are many alternatives out there.
But if your organization is either trying to take a leadership position in the market, or to carve out a sustainable and defensible niche, an IC platform that can target and accelerate performance through personalization can be your not-so-secret weapon.
This kind of platform can help the right people get the right messages at the right time, while reducing the noise and clutter that impedes performance.
What is an “internal communication strategy” in the current context?
With internal communication taking an increasingly central role in organizations, there can no longer be a single internal communication strategy.
Think strategies that are tailored to your complex internal audiences. Your internal communication function must become broader, deeper, and more impactful. It can address and add life to major corporate initiatives. It can reinforce priorities while reducing doubt and ambiguity. Beyond reaching everyone, it can emphasize specific teams, functions, or coalitions of individuals and move them to action.
You need to think of your audiences in new ways beyond role and organization, length of service, generation and gender.
You will have people who've gone through the COVID battle together and new team members who joined post-COVID. You’ll have people who have always worked from an office and some who have always worked remotely. You need to think of strategies that provide information that is consistent but not necessarily identical.
Without the appropriate strategies, even your best-intended actions on the most up-to-date platform can easily miss the mark.
Where should you go for IC strategy support?
Have you ever had a toothache? Where did you go? A plumber? A chiropractor? A psychiatrist? Of course, in the communication world, there are many “generalists” who have some limited internal communication experience, and expert specialists are relatively few. But the combination of great tools and strong expertise can be powerful.
In a climate where survival, much less success, is far from assured, the value for money from seeking the best combination of tools and thinking can be profound.
The most important thing to remember — about IC or business in general — is that the old days are over.
Internal comms is a new ballgame being played with new tools and new rules. Waiting until everything's settled to make the needed changes could put you well behind the curve. The stakes have never been higher. Now is the time to invest in the right platform and strategies to help your organization thrive through recovery and beyond.
What's next? Download the eBook “10 Principles of Modern Employee Communications” where we share tips & best practices for successfully communicating with your employees in today's digital age.