How can communicators use the transition from current COVID-19 circumstances as a way of thinking about what is holding us back and what is possible for the next phase of communication in our organisations?
We continue to be living and working in unprecedented times. As part of the recent round of IABC APAC Region meetups during COVID-19, and in working with clients and colleagues in Australia, in the region and globally, I am acutely aware of my fortune. As countries move through their national stages of pandemic response (and other significant challenges) I’ve listened to stories and experiences of other communication and change professionals.
My personal belief is that it’s not the right time to be making hard or universal predictions on what’s next. Instead, here’s a framing tool to consider what to keep and what to leave behind. It’s an exercise I’ve used in other settings and it’s got great potential for asking ourselves and our organisations two questions as we move to whatever ‘next’ is. In this 16 minute discussion, I look at why there is no ‘new normal’, at how communicators can use this time as a way of making choices about their practice and in how that same approach can apply to the communication industry more broadly. I’d love to know your thoughts and to continue the conversation.
A three-part series on communication actions organisations can take now during the response and recovery phases of the Australian fire catastrophe.
As those workplaces that closed over Christmas and New Year reopen after the break, a few simple internal communication actions will help both the operational and human responses to the current Australian fire catastrophe. The most effective employee communication responses will:
Acknowledge clearly any known employee, supplier and customer impacts.
Provide up to date operational and policy information, commit to an ongoing process and provide a ‘single source of truth’ for information.
Allow for a human response to the situation, and provide resources. For many, this was not a typical break – expect this to be a talking point.
Incorporate a feedback channel, along with a process for asking questions and providing prompt consistent responses.
Proactively and clearly share any policies and processes for volunteer leave, employees impacted by travel or health arrangements (for example smoke), requests for group fundraising, matched donations or other community engagement.
Recognise that the scale of the situation means that even people not directly impacted may have family or friends who were.
Reinforce the key requests of organisations for donations or support activities (such as encouraging fundraising over donation of goods unless directly sought by an organisation – work with the peak bodies for this).
The long version:
While a great many businesses remain open throughout the Christmas holidays, this is still the peak holiday time for many Australians. The 6th of January will see many people returning to work for the first time since the Christmas break, and will be the first time that many people are coming back into the workplace. It has been an extraordinary summer due to the extended fire emergency across States within Australia, and workplaces will need to take some measures to communicate about this.
Many large organisations, particularly those with workforces in areas affected will already have had to enact business continuity plans over the Christmas break due to some of the disruptions caused by the emergency, either for customers, or suppliers or employees impacted. Banks, telcos and utilities have already communicated with employees and customers.
And many communications teams would have been operational over the break ensuring that employees are kept up to date about operational risks and customer or client impacts. Some organisations also have employees who are volunteers in some capacity and so will have already been managing this. Many businesses have been managing communication as the need has arisen over the past 100 days of fires, but the scale and nature of the impacts over the past weeks have made an impact on all Australians.
What to do…
For those organisations who have not yet had to manage any direct impacts, there are some key things to manage and communicate with employees as they resume operations this week.
The scale and nature of the events of the past few weeks mean that many people have either first-hand experience of the impacts of the fires or directly know someone who has.
Has your organisation been directly impacted?
Is your organisation doing things specifically to support the response or recovery?
Do you have employees who have been directly affected?
How does your organisation already communicate about issues and emergencies?
Are roles clear and information consistent already, and if not, how will this be done?
These questions will inform what actions are required as well as who within the organisation will need to be involved prior to communication.
Even in response to a crisis, it’s essential to be clear of the outcomes of your communication activities. Three outcomes that would be helpful at this time are:
Build or strengthen capability.Increase readiness for any escalation or additional impacts by using/reinforcing your effective catastrophe or crisis communication approaches.The best time to have a plan in place is before you need it, but this is an opportunity to build the capability as it is required.
Effective, simple operational information. Whether it’s simply providing information about Volunteering Leave and Health and Safety or detailed information on things your business or organisation is doing to support or in response to the impacts of the fires.
Recognise and incorporate employee response.Being prepared for an understandable range of reactions to the situation and incorporating opportunities for involvement, discussion and support will reduce confusion, concern and allow employees to have their needs addressed.
Each organisation will have different specific messages according to the context, the industry, the geography and a range of other factors, but these are essential:
Acknowledgement that this has been an exceptional time – even if the organisation is not directly impacted.
What, if any, are the impacts?
What does this mean for today and the short term?
What help is available to employees and customers.
Specific proactive information about leave, employee support, process or customer changes.
Commit to providing ongoing regular information and provide any updates promptly.
If your organisation is impacted, face to face or video stream is a preferred way of consistently getting the initial messages across, backed up by the other effective channels* in your organisation.
Use your most effective channels for push messages. If yours is an email organisation, use that. It may be a messaging platform, text or digital signage.
Have a single source of information. Whether you use an intranet, shared drives, internal social media, or a notice board in the break room, choose one place as the single source for information and keep it current.
If your organisation has internal social media such as slack, yammer, or workplace consider using two dedicated threads or hashtags: one for operational information, policy, process and questions, and; one for general discussion. Doing so allows for a single source of essentials while factoring in the reality of how people are likely to interact.
* It helps to know what channels work within your organisation ahead of a crisis. There is not a magic formula for this as there are significant differences according to size, nature of work, nature of industry, nature of the workforce. Contact the author for more on this.
To support this consistent approach:
Delay non-essential communication. People will not have the bandwidth this week.
Provide extra time and resources to ensure managers can have face time with their direct reports.
Schedule a talk time. This could be combined with a fundraising activity or more organic. Depending on the size of your organisation, it might be possible for everyone to gather, or it might be of a scale where teams need to meet individually.
Provide Employee Assistance Program links.
Empower teams to determine how and where support, volunteering or fundraising is offered. Everyone is different and while crisis brings a strong sense of community, there will be different ideas about how and who to support. Factor this into any organisational arrangements early and allow for choice.
Lastly, this week is also not the time for overt promotion of the organisation’s efforts. Do the things that matter. Communicate regularly and factually. Provide opportunities for people to talk informally and let that flow into constructive contribution.
This is the first in a series of posts to help organisations communicate effectively during the response and recovery phases of this catastrophe. The next post will include more detailed steps for organisations that don’t have a communication team, and the final post will cover ways for communication and leadership teams to manage the ongoing and future situations.
Thanks to Craig Spencer, General Manager Strategy and Performance at Royal Flying Doctor Service (WA) and Jenni Field, Director Redefining Communication for their contribution to the development of this article.
Friends and colleagues, you probably wonder if I’ve taken leave from my senses for the last few weeks. Not those of you dealing with the day to day of the fire emergencies across Australia: I hope you’re ignoring me and getting on with the practical things and staying safe.
First, I am not living in an area directly impacted by anything other than some smoke and stories from people I know who know people who have had losses – of property, of animals, and in one case, their neighbour’s life. I am this writing from a place of privilege and fortune and as I do my thoughts are with each community affected, those whose losses are real and painful, and with those working to help others in every capacity.
Where possible, with colleagues, friends and family spread wide, I am attempting to amplify useful information, knowing that at times like this, people directly impacted are listening to their local news, their local authorities, the RFS or CFA or CFS according to state:
I have spent a lot of my downtime on social media being critical of, sarcastic about, and commenting on the performance of the PM during crisis. I’m not equipped to be a politician. I know my limitations.
So why am I, a communication professional and writer, spending time piling on to the criticism directed to the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison? How does me shitposting and criticising and sharing critiques actually helping while people are still in response mode, wile flames move in, while Defence Force evacuations are occurring in communities that are in states of emergency?
So what gives me cause to be so overtly critical? What gives me the right to mock #scottyfrommarketing and to pile on with the other critics? In my communication career, I’ve spent a lot of years helping organisations – employees and leaders, recover from bad leadership. Through communication, reputation and culture work, I have seen the residual impact on teams, divisions, departments and whole businesses when leadership has turned toxic.
Much of my communication career has been focussed on trying to help leaders and managers cut the bullshit and communicate in honest, authentic and impactful ways with the people in their organisations. Through listening, through self-awareness, through taking a constructive and humanistic approach. As a certified communication management professional, I am bound by a global standard that includes ethics and truthfulness in communication practice.
And I’ve seen the damage that non-consultative, directive, ego-driven leaders who are working out their own psychological issues in a way that impacts dozens or hundreds or thousands of employees.
I’m self-aware enough to know I do not have the disposition, the diplomacy, or the skill to be a politician. But I do know what genuine leadership looks like. What we are seeing from ScoMo to all appearances is a fabrication.
If during his time as a marketer, Scotty was doing his job, he would have a strong awareness of sentiment. He recently claimed he’s not going to make policy decisions on the back of what people have to say on Twitter. But you can guarantee his team is using every social media analytical tool at their disposal to understand how the tide is turning. At the moment, the responses are crude and rudimentary: attempting to shift the rhetoric and messaging without having to concede policy shifts from the entrenched party positions on coal, climate, cost-shifting emergency response from Federal to State jurisdiction.
And that’s why I am using the critical hashtags and tagging both the Facebook and Twitter accounts for the PM. He shattered his own illusion of not being swayed by public opinion when he chimed in about the firefighter who said ‘he’s not my PM’ being taken out of context. That was enough for him to jump on Twitter to tell his side of the story. It also showed that the messages are getting through from every Quiet Australian who has decided this is not the time to be quiet. Perhaps at some point, through an FOI request, or during a Royal Commission or some other form of inquiry into the responses to this catastrophic season, or when this year’s Cabinet papers are released in 20 years, the effort to monitor and to willfully ignore the views of Australians will be apparent.
The sentiment is shifting. Other conservatives are finding these positions untenable and unsustainable. When the FT is calling for your head, the markets listen. I’ve said elsewhere in response to the Machinery of Government changes #scottyfrommarketing rushed through in order to beat the Thodey report into the public service that if he was the CEO of a listed company, Morrison’s decision-making would be called into question.
That was prior to the even more ramshackle and reputationally destructive performance of the last few weeks. Any commercial Board would be assembling their Risk committee and making serious deliberations about the viability of the CEO. Australia deserves better, and despite the banal reassurances of our Chief Marketing Officer, Australia can more than one conversation at a time. Now is not the time for the people in response and recovery mode to be focussed on ineffective leadership but on the survival tasks at hand. But that is no reason for the rest of us, from our privileged positions of safety to not demand more of the leaders who are failing their constituents.
Okay, now I am ranting. Back to leadership skills. Even the most sociopathic leaders can in the right circumstances be swayed by the things that their minders won’t say to them.
“When you say ‘we’ all the time, you come across as not taking responsibility”
“You can’t talk your way out of this, you need to show some humility”
“I know you think you are demonstrating strength, but unless you can do it without that grin, you just look smugger”
“You might be hard-wired to deflect and not say ‘I don’t know’ but every time you run the same key message past people without answering the question – even if the answer is ‘you don’t know’, you’re damaging your credibility further.”
“People hate you right now and that’s not some kind of test of wills… unless you rapidly learn to genuinely listen, and not just fake it, you’re going to destroy not only your credibility but also that of the leadership team…”
“You need to understand it’s not about you and what you want to say”
They are paraphrased examples of real feedback that has been impactful with managers and executives in the public and private sector, giving them a moment when they have realised their impact isn’t what they hope it to be.
Scotty would like us to think he doesn’t know – or that he knows best – but let’s make sure he gets some feedback:
The stories of those with the experience at the front need to be heard – not just nodded at but heard by those in power. The stories of kids who have been afraid of the smoke, or who don’t understand why other people are frightened should move compassionate, capable people. There is wisdom and hope and the real community spirit in those stories.
We deserve leaders who are capable of paying attention to those stories and adapting instead of pushing their own narrative.
Disclosure: I have worked as a communication consultant for a number of state and federal government departments and agencies. I am not a member of any political party.
An open letter to leaders and communicators in the Australian Public Service and Government Agencies impacted by the announcement to super-merge departments.
Dear government communications leaders, middle managers, department heads, branch heads
Another change with no notice. Another significant change that will have a significant degree of attention and negative press.
The MoG* guidelines don’t prioritise effective communication, so what do you do?
TOO LONG, DIDN’T READ
Following the announcement of merging 18 Federal Government departments into 14, the Machinery of Government process kicks in. For employees and line managers, the communication process as recommended in the MoG is too late in the change process and under-developed in terms of how to immediately communicate with those affected. Mid-tier roles and positions with direct reports will need ways to communicate through the uncertainty of the weeks until 1 February.
1. Make real communication a priority now
3. Stop waiting to communicate until there is more information
4. Be real
These are explained in detail below after the next three sections that provide some context.
Why *Machinery of Government guidelines aren’t enough for effective communication
The Australian Public Service employes around 150,000 people and other public sector organisations, around 90000 more.
Which means around a quarter of a million Australian employees found out about significant transformation to their workplace via the media yesterday when the Prime Minister announced the merger of 18 departments into 14. In his announcement, he did state there would not be job losses (aside from the five departmental secretaries) and that “those who were previously performing functions in the areas that I have talked about in other departments will now perform those functions in new departments.” That sounds simple.
This type of change, in corporate life known as a restructure and in the public service as a “Machinery of Government (MOG) change” are frequent enough to have a set of guidelines for managing the changes.
Interestingly, one of the first items is “hire people to help manage the change.”
Points 6 and 7 of the executive summary recognise that this might need some help…
6. Agencies are encouraged to appoint an independent advisor to manage the MoG process, facilitate negotiations and to help resolve contested issues. An independent advisor must be appointed if milestones are not being met.
7. It is good practice to complete a thorough due diligence exercise within the first five to ten days to identify complex or contested issues early. As soon as it is apparent that a MoG is complex or contested, an independent advisor should be appointed to identify potentially contentious issues and mediate a resolution.
Interestingly, the communication processes for the change are listed not anywhere under People Management, but as the last point under Planning And Due Diligence:
Section 47 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 requires that a business consults—so far as is reasonably practicable—with workers who are (or are likely to be) directly affected by health and safety matters.
During a MoG change, agencies are encouraged to conduct ongoing communication and consultation with workers about their transition to new work arrangements. It is important to communicate with affected staff early in the process to explain:
why—the reasons and objectives for change
what—the impact of change
what next—the timetable for specific activity relating to the change
how—the mechanism for providing the input on the implementation.
The steering committee may decide to appoint a Communications Manager in each affected agency.
Every time an employee hears something fundamental about their role from outside their organisation, trust is destroyed. For workers in the public service or other agencies, where the debate about functions, roles and efficiencies is played out in public, this is a difficult time. One that happens a lot.
Disruption disrupts – so denial and ‘business as usual’ is not an option
Major change – transformational change such as redefining the scope and remit of an agency, or bringing together separate departments – in the short term creates a range of predictable human responses and an accompanying downturn in productivity.
Study after study about the negative impacts demonstrate that a number of conditions are a guarantee of reduced trust and disengagement:
Creating a high level of ambiguity by referencing major change without specific details
Publishing information externally on change that impacts individuals publicly before communicating directly with them
Providing no opportunities for input to change or its implementation
Not gathering feedback
Gathering feedback or research and not acknowledging the findings (even if the findings cannot be acted on it is key to be transparent)
Making ‘big bang’ announcements that are not supported with ongoing change and communication initiatives.
A significant change is an opportunity to do things better. The approaches to implementing major changes can provide a catalyst for the kinds of departmental and team leadership and communication that build trust and strengthen the capacity for change.Organisations that get this right see benefits in productivity, trust and capability.
HOWEVER…THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY
It is possible to communicate in a way that is humanistic and respects employees. A leaner public service will require higher levels of engagement to deliver ‘more with less.’ Yet, unless these changes are led effectively with meaningful employee communication, the support of the employees required to do the work will be eroded at exactly the time they will be needed the most. It’s a perfect time to do things better, because there is literally nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Four things public sector leaders can do now to make this not so shit for people impacted by the changes
1. Make real communication a priority now
Ministerial releases and intranet posts will not actually address the communication need at the heart of this challenge.
During uncertainty people need more real communication, and they need it from their immediate managers and supervisors fast. The majority of trust and engagement is attributable to the actions of leaders and supervisors, not memos.
Real means two-way face-to-face communication. Dialogue, listening, and discussion are part of the sense-making process for major change. This requires planning, commitment, time and skills – at a time when costs are being scrutinised. But the cost of not adopting real communication is another workplace-generation of low engagement and mistrust.
This is what it says on the tin. There are two levels of listening that are key. The first is as a leader, genuinely listen; take time to hear and acknowledge the experience of people facing change. The second is institutional listening; ensure that there are ways of capturing the attitudes, questions and concerns of employees. In environments where listening has not been high on the agenda this is a big – but symbolically priceless – change if it is done effectively. This doesn’t mean ‘just another survey’ or feedback box. It does mean engaging in dialogue about the reality of the changes.
3. Stop waiting to communicate until there is more information
There will always be an information gap. That doesn’t mean there should be a communication gap. Realise that not communicating is not an option. Talk about possible scenarios, and talk to facts. Talk about process in the absence of details of the change. When there is nothing to update, tell people there is nothing to update. Ask questions. Or listen.
When employees are reading and hearing something outside the organisation – whether in the news or on twitter – be prepared for some form of communication inside.
Making an announcement then asking employees to ‘discuss this with their manager’ without equipping managers and supervisors to have next-level conversations about change sets them up to fail. Even in organisations with healthy levels of engagement, it is not uncommon for there to be a pain point at the mid-level manager. They are expected to be the local face of change, yet are also typically facing the impact of changes themselves. If it’s important to increase the focus on communication during uncertainty for employees, it is twice as essential for managers.
4. Be real
Communication is never a substitute for strategy. If the strategy is going to be challenging, saying otherwise is not going to make it better. Although the public is accustomed to spin being part of the political discourse, spin has no place in employee communication.
Discuss what the future requires, what the current situation looks like, and what needs to happen to bridge that divide. For managers and supervisors, this means taking the time to be able to understand change and discuss it.
If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Establish links to the policy and strategic priorities you do have greater certainty about.
You need to be managing communication effectively now.
Have a plan
Understand the context
Put it in real language – no spin.
Prioritise face to face and dialogue
Support managers in their role
Communicate some more.
As change and uncertainty is a feature of every industry and sector and part of the landscape of business – the new normal – rather than accepting the negative consequences, leaders have the opportunity to face into the change and use the change as a catalyst for open, constructive communication.
But most of all, as managers you can try to make the change not feel like an episode of Utopia. Not communicating isn’t an option. Don’t be Rhonda.
Disclosure: I have provided advisory counsel, change and communication training to a number of Federal and State Government departments, agencies and directorates, both as Meaning Business and in my former role as Research & Content Director, Melcrum Asia Pacific.
An earlier version of this article was published prior to the 2014 Federal Budget when the Liberal Government announced it would cut over 10000 positions.