As we wrapped up 2020, I noticed a pattern across my clients, regardless of their size. From the largest global companies to my solopreneur and startup clients, almost everyone was talking about how they could keep the good things that have come from the COVID-19 pandemic and carry them into 2021.
Good things?! From COVID?! Actually, yes. While the pandemic wreaked havoc in so many ways, it also showed my clients what they were capable of—things they often didn’t realize were possible. Suddenly, massively complex multinational organizations had to operate like startups, throwing out the typical processes and getting things done fast to serve their customers with essential services during a scary time. Companies with historically long content approval processes were communicating in near real-time to keep employees and other stakeholders updated. The list goes on!
And while I don’t have a single client who would choose to relive the chaos and uncertainty of the past year, they all want to preserve some of the new ways of operating, collaborating and communicating. Here are my tips for how companies of all sizes can communicate more effectively in 2021, based on our collective learnings from 2020:
Appreciate our interconnectedness. COVID-19 and its ripple effects gave new meaning to the concept of stakeholder management. Business shifts and changing dynamics affected my clients’ stakeholders in often unpredicted ways. When communicating in 2021, make sure you’re taking the time to identify all the groups affected by a particular development and how they’re connected. Then determine who needs to know first and plot out the rest of the communications cadence to make sure the people who need to know feel included—and strengthen relationships.
For example, if your company plans to close an office building because it’s embracing work-from-home permanently, notify the leaders in that building first, then employees within that building, and then all company employees. After all impacted internal stakeholders know, share the news with local clients or vendors who frequented that location and finally local media (as necessary). Doing things out of order could create confusion or surprise, eroding key relationships.
Move swiftly. When things are uncertain, stakeholders need information—not perfect information. Wherever possible, preserve the shrunk-down approval processes developed during the pandemic, enabling communication to flow to key audiences much faster. Tell them what you know when you know it, and how you’ll keep them updated as you know more. Then, determine who truly needs to review and approve a message before it goes out, and set clear expectations for a quick review. If you set a new expectation for speedy communication during COVID-19, your key audiences will expect you to stick to it in the new normal.
Be consistent. The stakes were high in 2020, and the best companies ensured their leaders were equipped to show a consistent face to key audiences—both internally and externally. Be sure you continue to provide leaders with speaking points and other tools that help them speak with one voice about important news or developments. They’re your primary communicators and need to be treated as such.
Really, really listen. Many companies think they listen to stakeholders well because they monitor social media mentions or enable employees to comment on intranet articles. But are you taking the time to look for patterns in stakeholder feedback, or to get at the root cause of what you’re hearing? You may think you understand the concerns of your audience more than you actually do. Take the time to carefully consider what they’re telling you in existing feedback channels. And if you’re not collecting feedback, start asking for it now.
Remember, we’re all human. Pets blocking the camera. Kids making faces in the background. Spouses talking loudly offscreen. We’ve experienced all of this and more in our (largely on-camera) work this past year. As a communicator, I couldn’t love it more! Why? Because it reminds us that we’re all human beings, doing the best we can in a truly wild time. Those human beings are who we’re trying to communicate with, and they have more stressors—and more demands on their time and attention—than ever before. If you’re not already using conversational language in your communication, start doing it now. Celebrate your clients and employees. Thank your team for all they do. Ask them how they’re really doing. That’s the kind of communication they’ll remember.