Covid-19 is now viral - in every sense of the word. New Zealand announced its first confirmed case today, with officials stressing that it was always a case 'of not if, but when'.
Most country outbreaks are, for the time being at least, as contained as they can be but we all know how easy it is to catch a cold and, as Covid-19 is the same family as the 'common cold' I have no doubt that in the coming weeks we will all be aware of someone with the illness (if not ourselves).
Miscommunication has been rife for weeks now and has resulted in some very nasty racist attacks and displays of xenophobia. Social media is pumped up with rumour and counter-rumour and economic fall-out is beginning to occur.
So what role for practitioners in all of this? Quite a significant one of course but perhaps one of the most valuable and potentially overlooked roles in this type of situation is that of the internal communication professional.
Organisations of all types will face many challenges in the coming weeks and months. Inevitably supply chains will be disrupted and customers numbers will diminish but the greatest challenge will be staying in business or continuing to provide service as staff either fall ill, self-isolate or have to remain home as carers. Internal communicators should have already prepared their crisis plan in conjunction with their HR and leadership teams and have a programme underway - if not, now is the hour.
Clear, factual and consistent communication will help organisations maintain some form of business continuity. Internal communications professionals need to help their colleagues understand how everyone will work together to manage staff shortages, remote working, public-facing service delivery, wellness and hygiene as well as situation updates as case numbers rise and more people become unwell.
However, where the real value will be evident is in those workplaces where internal communicators have been active already, successfully building strong internal relationships in workplaces that give priority to the employee experience. In those instances, the crisis communication plan will be particularly effective because the fundamentals of trust, commitment and loyalty between the organisation and its employees will already be in place.
Hopefully, the organisations out there who prioritise and value their employee relationships outnumber those that don't - and those are the workplaces and organisations where the value of internal communications will be visible to all.
It's that time of year when my attention turns outside in and I take another long look at the role of internal communications. Sharing knowledge around the preparation and implementation of good internal communication strategies always leads me to emphasis the fact that you can't have good external relationships if your internal relationships are poor or neglected.
Relationships of all kinds give our organisations the permission they need to do what they do and to keep their licence to operate. Sadly, internal relationships often fall by the wayside with employees taken for granted by the organisation's leadership. Much has been made of employee engagement and the need to ensure that everyone is delighted, enthralled and active in the workplace - which is great but, as humans, it is a rare thing if this actually comes to pass, particularly in an era that features zero hour contracts, unsafe work spaces, stress, burnout and the odd oppressive boss. What might be considered 'gold standard' internal communication is swiftly cancelled out by bad behaviour - whether that's the boss, the colleague or the employee themselves.
So what's next for internal communication? We've already seen the evolution of titles - employee engagement executive, employee relations officer, chief happiness officer and so on - but have we actually seen an evolution of the role? I don't think we have but it is getting there. Many internal communicators have moved on from 'sending out stuff' and simply actioning executive demands for information sharing and tools like Slack and Trello have helped internal organisational culture move forward a little (although there are growing reports of task update fatigue as employees struggle to use the collaborative tools and actually complete their work).
My thinking is that there's some internal rethinking for organisations to undertake and that has to start with an audit of their people, values, culture, tools and systems. Each of these things informs the other and a cohesive, effective internal communication strategy can only be formulated once this is done (and if you need some help understanding just how it is done, then we can help).
Internal communication is everyone's responsibility but not everyone's area of expertise. Bringing people together, facilitating good relationships, developing a healthy values-based internal culture is the realm of the internal communications professional and always has been. Communicators for sure - but also connectors, facilitators and encouragers specialising in building a workplace culture where people are empowered not just to get the job done but to do a great job.
Funny thing experience. When you are looking for a job, experience tends to be the focus of the interview. What experience have you got? How is it relevant? Where did you get your experience? If the 'experience indicators' aren't immediately obvious on your CV, it is highly unlikely that you'll even get to the interview stage.
Surprising then that the emphasis given to experience at the recruitment stage is so poorly reflected by employers when they consider the experience they are providing for their employees. I wonder how different recruitment would be if, during an interview, the prospective employee was asked about their experience and they related their experience of being employed. Describing in detail how their current or former workplace made them feel. Whether or not they were rewarded, developed, trained and recognised. Whether the employing organisation truly valued them and the contribution they made. Whether they were listened to - and acknowledged. Or perhaps they would explain how they were ignored, stressed and under-resourced, motivating their current job hunt.
Public relations builds and sustains the relationships organisations need to keep their licence to operate - and that's all the relationships, not just a select few. All relationships include the internal relations for the organisation which includes the internal communications strategy and function. If you don't have good internal relations then your external relationships will fail and your reputation will falter - and underpinning all this is the workforce experience.
For years employee engagement has been the elusive 'X Factor' for organisations - 'if we get good engagement then all's well and our employees will magically become staunch advocates for us on social media and other external platforms' goes the riff which, to be fair, is only one step up from the great myth of 'employee satisfaction'. It's a myth because I might be 'satisfied' with my job for many reasons and those reasons will probably have nothing to do with my loyalty, commitment or care for my employer. For instance, I might tick 'yes' on the job satisfaction survey because the hours I work allow me to pursue a part-time career as a magician, or allow me to take care of an elderly relative, be a volunteer life-guard, pick the kids up from school - or any number of pursuits. I might tick 'yes, I'm satisfied with my job' because I'm frightened my manager might find out if I tick 'no' and make my life a misery. Satisfaction is not an adequate measure of internal relationship health and neither is engagement, which is only a mild improvement on satisfaction. The concept of 'engaged employee' is a surface measure of an individual's reaction to their workplace but not a measure of relationship health.
Work has changed and as security has been substituted for flexibility so employee requirements have changed. Studies have shown that employees look for purpose in their work often before pay. That the organisation's values must align with their own if they are to remain committed and loyal to their employer. Employee engagement requires a culture that facilitates collaboration and that collaboration helps everyone comply with what is necessary to get the job done. The experience must include a sense of place so the employee understands the environment they belong to, their place and role in achieving the purpose and the opportunity to work to and provide value.
As always, new job titles emerge to describe new times - we can find chief happiness officers, masters of contentment, experience innovators and many more besides. But the titles don't change a core undertaking if the experience is going to be genuine - and that undertaking is internal communication. You can't build good relationships without good communication. Communication that helps build knowledge, address behaviours or change attitudes. The internal communication strategy must be designed to convey the working experience of all those inside the organisation, listening and engaging in conversations that help inform organisational culture and any necessary change. What it must never be is 'sending out stuff', churning out email newsletters and uploading information to a stale old intranet - heading in that direction will take employees towards the door rather than towards the heart of the organisation.
Still photo by IIONA VIRGIN on Unsplash
Video and motion graphic by Catherine Arrow for PR Knowledge Hub
About Think Forward
Think Forward is written by Catherine Arrow. It answers PR questions, highlights practice trends - good and bad - and suggests ways forward for professional public relations and communication practitioners.