Following the first two Institute for Public Relations (IPR)/Peppercomm COVID-19 studies, which focused on initial understanding of the organizational responses and employee perceptions of the pandemic, the third installment is a collection of qualitative assessments from the perspectives of communications leaders on where we are and what’s next.  In addition, the current racial unrest triggered by the death of George Floyd, the world is in search of truth, justice, and respect.

As a global marketing and communications firm specializing in the health care sector with analytics and insights at the core of our client partnerships, W2O has been engaged in the COVID-19 situation and improving racial equality from aggregator, supporter, counselor, critical voice, to client partner.

As such, we have experienced the pandemic and the injustice witnessed from multiple angles.  In each case, the measure of our learning stems from a thirst for truth but in seeking such wisdom the only thing worth knowing is meaning.  The why behind the what, where, and how.  Below is a summation of key learnings meant to increase our knowledge of the role of communications during such a tumultuous, uncertain time.

Let’s start with intent. Leaders are being moved to act in ways they not have before. In COVID-19, rethinking value, experience, and operating principles have dominated the agenda for organizations large and small.  From a racial equality standpoint, the very core or purpose of the enterprise is now under scrutiny. At W2O and with our clients, actions and declarations that support and improve racial equality and health equity are at the forefront of organizational conscience.  It’s more than donations or support.  It’s about policies, inclusion, respect, integrity, and openness.

Next is internal communications.  Leaders are finding out two things about internal communications.

The first is that it’s working.  The content, cadence, platforms, connections, tonality and frequency are moving employees across a spectrum of learning allowing them to make the arguments themselves and strengthening trust and confidence. In our firm, silos have been broken as people operate seamlessly in a virtual environment.  Similarly, we are seeing the same in many of our large global clients.  This is due primarily to effective, strategic internal communications.  Important elements of internal communications during this time are – empathy; facts; timeliness; feedback; actions; and depth. Secondly, in other organizations, internal communications have been woefully ineffective.  Much of it due to years of neglect.  No investment. Tactical. Lower level staff in charge.  A key take-way in this regard is COVID-19 and the racial conversation are elevating internal communications to a strategic area with the requisite funding necessary to keep ahead of a changing workforce.

A key insight from COVID-19 from an internal communications standpoint is that organizational confidence must be a focus for leaders even more so than productivity.  Productivity is an outcome of confidence.  Confidence is an outcome of information, trust, and positivity about the future. We are witnessing leaders in a variety of organizations including our own operate with humility, emotional awareness, and calmness never making predictions or judgments but dealing with events rationally.  For DE&I, the major take-away thus far is organizational respect.  Is the company aware, interested, engaged, transparent, and inclusive to all voices? To all backgrounds?  To all races?  If so, how?  We have always been an open culture raising sensitive issues and subjects with our entire staff and lately these conversations have been more robust and meaningful resulting in greater understanding and trust.

The next area to consider is outreach. Some companies have gone insular since the pandemic and the racial tensions began choosing to wait out the situation rather than engage more deeply.  At W2O, our founder and CEO, Jim Weiss, a veteran of the health care industry, has been leading efforts on behalf of the firm with the industry but also with clients in vaccine development, ventilator and PPE distribution, testing, employee engagement, and HR policies around mental health, to address myriad needs to solving the crisis.   Further, we have expanded our connections with multiple organizations and leaders to strengthen our policies and programs related to DE&I.  Being so deeply involved in the process provides weekly and daily forums to engage our staff in these activities raising morale, productivity and confidence.  Many of our clients are either involved in vaccine development, testing, or some level of support in finding a solution. And all clients are dealing with employee challenges and the move back to the next normal and what that entails.

A third component to discern is corporate culture.   This is where purpose comes in.  Culture is the human dimension of any organization. It either propels a company to the future or it hinders its growth and success. For COVID-19, in a virtual working world, the transference of culture becomes even more acute. Do your values hold true?  Do your operating principles continue?  In a virtual working world are people invisible?  Luckily, what we’ve experienced as both W2O and with our clients is that culture has become even more important and hardened during this pandemic.  In assessing the very culture of the enterprise and its purpose, respect, value, integrity determine its tolerance, inclusion of black voices, collapsing silos and political barriers as people forge a better way to exist together.

Certainly, we live in an interesting time. COVID-19 and racial inequity has certainly upended the entire world.  IPR and Peppercomm through their timely and important research is keeping the profession complete with information to find the truth and more importantly the meaning behind it.  We are grateful for the chance to share an additional swath of this picture and hope it adds to the understanding and knowledge of the situation.

Gary F. Grates is a globally renowned, recognized, and respected expert in change management communications, employee engagement and corporate strategy execution counseling senior leaders and Boards of Directors from global organizations in the areas of leadership transition, M&A integration, crisis, labor-management relations, organizational effectiveness, employee engagement, function optimization, internal communications improvement, strategy implementation, and change management.

He is a Principal at W20 Group, the parent company of WCG, Twist Marketing, W20 Ventures, and NextWorks.  This network of independent, complementary public relations, marketing, and communications counseling firms focused on integrated business solutions in the areas product supremacy, innovation, change, organizational effectiveness, and growth for the world’s leading organizations.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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