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Communications in the Time of COVID: 7 Lessons Learned

June 15, 2020
Senior communications leaders in the manufacturing space share their response to a situation that has no playbook.

The cliché “building the plane while flying it” does not even begin to describe the intense scenario communications professionals in the manufacturing sector have experienced since COVID-19 became a stark reality. A more accurate description might be trying to safely land a plane on a short runway while flying it upside down in a thunderstorm.

Under the dark cloud of the pandemic, many manufacturing organizations were deemed essential businesses, or they are the first in line for a return to the “next normal.” This has required each of these leaders to develop a complex, multifaceted communications approach in near real time.

Effective communications with employees have been particularly important the past few months as normal routines have been disrupted. Many frontline production employees were asked to continue working after a short shutdown to implement EHS protocols. Engineers and technicians were forced to leave their critical work and collaboration spaces behind to work remotely. Office employees were required to transition to working from home while balancing technology and family issues.

Creating communications plans has tested the leadership and management skills of these leaders and their teams as they’ve worked to keep people safe, healthy, well-informed, motivated and productive.

Following are seven lessons learned from their experiences and for communications strategies for moving into the “next normal.”

1. Employees First

Communications executives in manufacturing generally must engage with a multiform set of constituents ranging from government agencies to the news media. What has changed during the pandemic is a significant shift toward employee communications. One executive told us that 70% of all communications resources are now allocated to employee engagement. Any communication to them should make it clear that their wellbeing is the top priority. Communications teams should collaborate with the CEO and executive leadership team on detailing the organization’s posture, mindset and principles – with employee health, both physical and mental, at the top of the agenda. What is being done to keep frontline workers safe? How is the company helping all employees reduce the stress and anxiety that comes with disruption?

2. Empower Regional and Local Staff

Rather than take a command-and-control approach, communications teams should articulate principles from the top of the organization all the way to the front lines. All of the executives we spoke with prioritized empowering regional and local staff to execute processes and communications as they see fit. Headquarters pandemic task forces and communications teams have developed toolkits and templates that can be used at individual facilities around the world to create everything from manager talking points to posted signs – translated into multiple languages as needed to ensure 100% awareness.

For example, one company’s response followed the pandemic globally. Communications toolkits were created for facilities in China first. Lessons learned were applied and toolkits optimized for Europe and the U.S. as the virus took hold in those regions.

3. Leadership in the Spotlight

The CEO of the company should always be in the spotlight to ensure employees that high-level leadership is driving the direction of the response. The entire executive leadership team, including the CHRO and communications executives, should also be part of the process of reaching out to employees to drive key messaging and demonstrate closely aligned leadership across the board.

One company learned from previous crises such as Hurricane Maria in 2017 and California wildfires in 2018 that their CEO needed to be front and center to reassure employees. During the COVID situation, he has been conducting all-hands video calls on a weekly basis.

Several of the organizations we spoke with either had on staff or hired a professional medical leader to help them make sense of the mountains of information about the pandemic. This chief medical officer helped communicators distribute accurate messages to staff and position the company as a trusted source of advice.

4. Increase and Expand Communications

Communications teams should ramp up the cadence of communications and expand the channels and platforms used by their organizations during any difficult situation. All of the executives we spoke with stressed that organizations must lead toward overcommunicating during this time.

One leader told us executive-led “quarterly town halls will be a thing of the past” as leaders drive more frequent, briefer check-ins with employees and direct their regional heads and frontline managers do to the same.

In addition to written communication, internal communications teams should leverage both long- and short-form (10 to 15 minute) video featuring leader Q&A sessions. This can be a lot of content to manage, so CCOs and their team may want to consider using an integrated content management system to push out messaging to all internal touchpoints simultaneously, including email, employee portals, internal social channels, the company’s Salesforce platform and even digital signage.

5. Communications Is a Two-Way street

Communications should not travel in one direction. Communications teams need to monitor how workers are feeling and encourage two-way dialogue both person-to-person and via technology. Employees should be encouraged to provide feedback directly to manages and/or executives, either directly or anonymously.

Digital platforms have become critical tools for measuring employee sentiment. One organization has been using Facebook’s Workplace platform to disseminate content and gauge how employees respond to it based likes, comments and shares. The communications team can then adjust their approach in near real time.

6. Return-to-Work Planning Focused on Empathy

With the majority of frontline personnel already working inside facilities, every executive we spoke with is already communicating to office-based employees about what a possible return to work might look like. They all are stressing safety, empathy and understanding.

Communicators should stress organizational flexibility and be mindful that employees may be dealing with personal issues at home (childcare, elder care, etc.). Consider explaining a phased approach to reboarding, and be very deliberate about communicating new health protocols  — such as asking employees to attest they have no symptoms and instituting a screening system before they can return to a facility.

As one CCO explained: “Our first wave will be 10% maximum, starting with lab employees who need to be onsite. That’s followed by workers who’d benefit from being onsite. Finally, the majority who really don’t NEED to work in-person until it is absolutely safe.

7. Rethink Everything

The pandemic has presented the opportunity for leaders in manufacturing to take a step back and evaluate their entire communications strategy. What is working? What isn’t? What do stakeholders need to hear moving forward — and how? All can be evaluated and adapted as necessary. As one CCO gracefully noted: “If this is not the time to pull the tablecloth out from under the dishes and say, ‘What should we be doing?’ when is the time?” 

Robert Duda is senior vice president for Automotive & Transportation Strategy at Peppercomm, a New York-based strategic communications firm with offices in San Francisco and London. Their study “Engineered for Resilience: COVID Communications in the Manufacturing Sector,” offers insights mentioned in the above article.

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