Disruption Reflections: Communication Matters

There are many lessons we can garner from COVID-19. And many myths dispelled. As we emerge from the fog of COVID-19, one theme continues to dominate my thoughts.

It feels like more people than ever have been showing genuine empathy towards others. They’ve demonstrated a level of thoughtfulness and care we often have not seen in the past, at least publicly. This has been terrific!

Business, government and community leaders have played their part too, stepping up their game in the communication stakes. From what I’ve observed, many leaders have started showing compassion and empathy towards their constituents; they have been direct in the way they communicate and, thankfully, sparing in their use of jargon and spin.

In addition, it felt to me that businesses have been producing content that’s more useful, relevant and respectful of the audience than what they normally would dish up. 

These are all good things!

Which leads me to a question: 

Will this trend continue?

From a communications perspective, why can’t businesses be useful, helpful and relevant all the time? Why can’t we deliver value to our employees and the community generally, over and above our products and services ongoing? This applies to businesses of all sizes by the way, from micro personal brand enterprises right up to large companies.

And will our leaders eventually go back to pre-COVID-19 days where spin, sound bites and robotic messaging prevailed? The politicians who have stepped up in recent months, will they return to their old ways?

Ditto business leaders. Some have been pretty good of late in the communications stakes. But will they go back into their shells, pushing authentic public communication aside in the process?

Rita Men, Associate Professor of Public Relations, University of Florida, explained in The Conversation, five ways in which CEOs should communicate with their workers during coronavirus:

Meanwhile, according to CMO.com, CEOs are fronting a growing number of brand initiatives offering customers additional services and value-added offers in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

CMO.com quoted Amanda Lacey, of Sydney-based PR consultancy, Popcom:
“Now is the time to demonstrate your organisational core values and reconnect with your community,” 

But shouldn’t this be something leaders do anyway all the time? Of course, some people, leaders and organisations have always demonstrated traits such as those outlined above.

I’ve loved how the New Zealand Prime Minister has communicated during these challenging past few months, especially her video conferencing calls with subject matter experts (dubbed “Conversations Through COVID-19”), plus her casual live stream chats with the public via Facebook

But here’s the thing: this has always been Jacinda’s modus operandi – she was a good communicator coming into the pandemic, and she has emerged from the crisis with her reputation enhanced.

Michael Margolis, a strategic messaging expert in his seminal book Story 10X states that for communication to be effective then the audience must see it, feel it and then believe it.

Story 10x presents your big disruptive idea—in a manner that is difficult if not impossible to reject. Reframing the impossible into the inevitable.

It consists of three critical steps, described in the model above.

To see it, is to give the audience the set up or context. It is to present the future in aspirational terms  – how change leads to opportunities. Churchill is best remembered for successfully leading Britain through World War Two. He was famous for his inspiring speeches, and for his refusal to give in, even when things were going badly. Contrast this with the disjointed, discompassionate ramblings often espoused by President Trump through these COVID times.

To feel it, is to build empathy, describing the gap between desire and dilemma. You don’t need to have charisma or to be a renowned storyteller to deliver this message.

Angela Merkel doesn’t give big speeches. The German Chancellor was renowned her once a year address, in a pre-recorded New Year’s message. When she decided to update German citizens about the coronavirus outbreak in March, it was the first unscheduled televised address she had given in almost 15 years of leadership.

The speech was a hit.

Merkel, a pastor’s daughter with a doctorate in quantum chemistry, presented the grim facts of the pandemic while also offering a dose of compassion. She referenced her East German background and the difficulty she had with the idea of restricting freedom of movement. But she explained why doing so was necessary, and got Germans on her side. 

“She is not a great orator, but this calm message to the nation contributed to the confidence of the people: 80% to 90% felt she can do it,” said Wolfgang Merkel (no relation to the Chancellor), professor of political science at Berlin’s Humboldt University. “When people are deeply insecure about the future, they seek protection and more certainty from the government.”

To believe it, is to provide supporting data that legitimises the promise of your big idea.

President Tsai ing wen has built upon a strong plan — one that had been in place since the SARS scare of 2003 — for managing a pandemic. And there have been no exceptions to the rules. They have professionals running the show,” and are science led. “These are people who have trained for years for this.” It is also important to note that Taiwan’s other main communication weapon is its’ Vice President Chen Chien-jen who is an Epidemiologist and delivers facts in a very succinct way

It is important to note that not all communication has to be via the written word. Just as the COVID debate changed when the ‘flattening the curve’ graphic emerged, the current ‘mask’ outrage in Victoria is hard to fathom when you view the above infographic. The best leaders know how to ‘mix up’ the message, mediums and platforms.

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