2 October 2020

Building the picture - communicating through COVID-19

By Lyvia Nabarro

One of the biggest misunderstandings about the role of a communications team is that they are there for the last step. Need to get it out the door? Speak to comms. Need it on brand? Speak to comms. Need to make it ‘pretty’? Speak to comms.

It’s true that a Communications team, or Corporate Affairs team as we are at MOSL, has an important role as a gatekeeper. We ensure that what is presented to the market, to our members and stakeholders, is clear and easy to read, in keeping with our brand and tone of voice and where possible tells a story – linking the reader back to why we are communicating with them and how this piece of work ties into our overall strategy and the delivery of our business plan. But communications should never be considered as a last step to any project or piece of work. For communications to be effective it is vital that you build the picture and take your audience with you on the journey. This means being open and transparent and maintaining a drumbeat of communication across a variety of channels, with a variety of different stakeholders.

Effective communications should not only be part of a company’s strategic planning, it is also essential to building trust and engagement, both internally and externally.

As part of MOSL’s 2020/21 Business Plan we made a commitment to reporting openly and transparently about our performance, this includes how we communicate with our colleagues, our members and the wider market.

In the current COVID-19 world, with so much uncertainty, there is an increasing need for transparency and for communications professionals to find new and engaging ways to reach their audiences through digital channels. For many organisations, which may not have the infrastructure in place to support this rapid move to digital, this can be a challenge. For others, it can be a great opportunity. We are fortunate at MOSL to have been able to transition to remote working quickly and smoothly and even to have onboarded 19 colleagues 100 per cent remotely.

In the wake of the pandemic, we increased our engagement with the team and with the market – recognising not only the need for regular and up-to-date information, but also the need to create opportunities for personal contact in increasingly isolating times.

After almost seven months of remote working (and almost four years at MOSL) here are just some of the things I have learnt:

1.      “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”

Unfortunately, I can’t credit myself for this quote, but it is one I hold true from Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw – along with the phrase “repetition isn’t the devil” (which I probably did pen and poorly paraphrase from Zig Zaglar’s “repetition is the mother of learning”).

When balancing several different priorities and workstreams, it can be easy to assume that your outputs have been communicated. We all know the feeling of being so deeply engrossed in a project that we assume everyone must know about it. The biggest and worst assumption you can make is that something has been communicated, or that communicating it once is enough.

A perfect example of this is MOSL’s new purpose, vision and strategy. We launched our new strategy in July and since then, we have been actively communicating our new purpose and vision statements and ensuring that we link key activities back to our strategic priorities. We have also held ‘deep dive’ sessions at our weekly team meetings to make sure that colleagues are comfortable with the strategic initiatives and what they mean for MOSL and the market.

In doing so, we recognise that embedding a strategy isn’t as simple as telling people about it. It must be lived; it must be part of your everyday language and it must filter through into your everyday activities – be the ‘why’ to your day job. It’s important to find opportunities and different mediums (through articles, blogs, webinars etc.) to communicate key messages so that they become part of your BAU.

2.      Excellent communication leads the way to credibility

This one is pretty simple. The better and more openly you communicate, the more credible you will become. This isn’t about creating illusions or managing your reputation, its about clear and honest communication.

Over the past year, MOSL has worked hard to improve its transparency and the quality of reporting against our performance. We will be open about where we have performed well, and where we haven’t. While this can feel uncomfortable at times, it is essential to building credibility and speaks to our core values – Respect, Clarity, Influence and Expertise.

3.      Communication is always better when its two-way

One-way communication is a sure-fire way to lose valuable input – both from your team and your stakeholders. As we have witnessed during COVID-19, it is essential that you make opportunities for your stakeholders to feedback and ask questions.

While there are advantages to the occasion ‘tell’ approach – its clear, fast and effective – it leaves little space for feedback, participation and what’s more, studies have shown that it alone does not influence behaviour. So, why does that matter? Well in the example above about embedding our strategy it means that learning becomes a more democratic process. The ability to ask questions and provide challenge means you will not only have a more intelligence-led strategy, you will also create buy in from your stakeholders. 

4.      Technology must always play a core role in communication

The use of technology and online tools has also become more prominent in light of the pandemic. From online meeting tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, to online survey and quiz platforms and the use of digital reports.

At MOSL, we see this as a valuable opportunity to broaden the reach of our stakeholder engagement. Across the country and across industries, we are fast realising that face-to-face meetings are not the only way to develop strategic thinking or to collaborate (in fact, we developed our strategy completely virtually during lockdown).

In the water retail market, we saw evidence of this through the industry’s fast and collective response to managing the impact of COVID-19 and mitigating liquidity challenges through a number of urgent code changes. Panel meetings, previously held in person, moved online and were often called at short notice. Moving online meant the meetings were more easily accessible (a click of a button rather than a commute) and allowed for more open participation.

We have seen this play out as well in several industry forums and webinars. Where previously you may have a handful of stakeholders attend, online meetings remove time and cost barriers, enabling more and more people to join and have an active voice.

There is no doubt that as we continue to see global changes to how we conduct business through this ‘new normal’, technology will play an ever more important role in how we communicate.

5.      You may always be playing with missing puzzle pieces

And lastly, putting the puzzle pieces together. A core part my role and of any communications team is bringing all the puzzle pieces together from across the business. We are storytellers, and the best storytellers create images in people’s minds and inspire. We take pieces of the picture – from each individual, each team, each stakeholder – and try to bring them all together to create one overall picture.

This is the ideal, but the reality is you may never actually get to finish it. As your company (and the market) grows and evolves, as new people join, priorities change and you face different challenges, you will continue to add new pieces and create a new landscape.

The key to good communications is to be comfortable with that, to know that your job is never finished but to still enjoy building the picture.

To find our more about MOSL's COVID-19 response visit our dedicated COVID-19 response webpage.

 

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