COVID’s lessons for leaders

Five communications takeaways from a three-year pandemic

Three years ago this week, as the first North American lockdowns began, I was on vacation in New Zealand. After a mad scramble to find an early flight home, I drafted a note to our team from a plane over the Pacific.

I wrote that while we faced great uncertainty and didn’t know what lay ahead, in every previous crisis of my career the needs and opportunities for professional communicators had gone up, not down. The impact of communication is greatest in difficult times.

This has proven true yet again. While the last three years have stoked and amplified considerable anxiety, anger and division, this period has also reminded us of the resilience of the human spirit – and the value of communication in building it.

What are we to make of our collective journey in the last three years? What have we learned about communication? How should this change the way leaders think, act and react in 2023 and beyond? Here are five takeaways.
#1: Purpose-driven, stakeholder-centred communication lowers risk, and brings reputation and business rewards.

While every generation has experienced moments of collective trauma — wars, assassinations, natural and human disasters, and terrorist attacks – COVID has been unique. Never in our lifetimes has almost everyone experienced the same crisis so personally, yet complicated by existing inequities. We’ve also seen intersecting public anxieties about our health and safety, the cost of living, climate change, and confidence in democratic and public institutions.

When many stakeholders are experiencing both personal crises and crises of conscience and confidence, leaders need to lean into purpose-driven, stakeholder-centred communication. For example, at Argyle our team frequently works with clients to build executive thought leadership strategies rooted in communicating leaders’ purpose-driven narratives. These strategies both frame content and identify and amplify senior executives’ authentic voices.

This shift toward a human, relational approach also means less broadcasting of content, and more symmetrical, two-way communication, with systems for listening and dialogue; creating space for diverse voices; and being guided by data, facts and evidence, and also by the inherently subjective and emotional needs of stakeholders as we build relationship capital.

Those who do this well understand the subtle difference between communicating to people and communicating through people: creating values affinity and activating peer-to-peer credibility to advocate for our organizations, ideas and ideals.

#2: Organizational culture has been a casualty of the pandemic. Smart leaders are rebuilding it now – and giving employees a better experience.

While most knowledge workers churned out more work than ever during the pandemic, many of us weren’t more productive; we were just working longer — with fewer breaks and social time, and often while juggling work and family responsibilities. It wasn’t working from home; it was living at work.

It’s hardly surprising that so many people are now questioning everything about work: not just where they work (location); whom they work for and why (purpose), and even the role of work in their lives.

We’re still coming to grips with the consequences, but here’s a sign: in consecutive surveys in 2021 and 2022, CEOs of Canada’s major communications firms were asked if their talent had developed at the same pace while working remotely. In 2021, 80 per cent said no; in 2022, 100% said no. While today’s young professionals are arguably the best-educated, highest-skilled, most emotionally intelligent generation in history, they lost the serendipitous learning and relationships that come from real-life collaboration.

Rebuilding workplace cultures and relationships must be a priority. Relationship-building is an analog process; humans are social animals who need to be together. Without it, work becomes transactional, and organizations easy to leave. That is why at Argyle, we have been clear that hybrid really does mean hybrid. The balance between face time and remote work isn’t just essential; it can be a competitive advantage.

One of a leader’s greatest assets is the power to convene — to bring people together for dialogue, work or play. Wise managers will use it thoughtfully, balancing giving workers much-needed flexibility in managing the day-to-day grind, while being intentional about bringing people together in real life to build the relationships and trust that drive creativity and collaboration.

#3: As new light shines on society’s inequities, leaders must work hard to understand both stakeholder and shareholder expectations, and to meet them with both words and action.

The pandemic became both a catalyst and a backdrop for social reckonings – from the racial justice movement to Indigenous reconciliation – that are reshaping the landscape in which organizations operate and communicate.

As a result, investors are more focused on ESG risk. Stakeholders are on high alert for inauthenticity and “purpose-washing.” And in tight labour markets, talent is flowing to organizations that walk the talk. According to The State of Social, a 2022 study by Argyle and ESG Global Advisors, employees give their employers reasonably high marks for action – but there’s still a gap between performance and expectations. The study also showed what responses are table stakes, and where organizations have a chance to be in the early majority, such as in human rights policies for investments and supply chains, Indigenous recruitment and youth advancement, and third-party diversity, equity and inclusion assessments.

We’ve also seen some common themes in the way wise leaders have responded at a personal level. They accept responsibility at the highest levels of the organization. They speak frankly in naming the problems, such as anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, or gender bias. They are humble, self-reflective and even self-critical. They go beyond offering statements of concern and solidarity to make tangible, measurable commitments – because both words and actions matter. They’ve held themselves accountable rather than waiting to be called out. And they’ve collaborated with others to gain scale and impact.

#4: Misinformation and disinformation can threaten any organization. Leaders must build up their resilience.

Low media literacy, information overload, and mass access to social media have enabled misinformation – such as conspiracy theories – to spread more quickly than ever before, with grave risks to social cohesion, public health and safety, democratic institutions and the effective functioning of capital markets. AI has created more opportunities for malicious actors to undermine our social and political systems.

No organization, industry or individual leader is immune from this threat. An effective response goes beyond just monitoring and responding to misinformation; leaders must build their organization’s resilience. Argyle’s crisis and reputation risk team is addressing this with proactive strategies to monitor reputation in real time. In doing so, we improve our clients’ abilities to set strategies rooted in data.

In a recent presentation to a Canadian conference on combatting disinformation, I shared the following imperatives:

  • Claim your own digital “real estate,” and create your own hub for accurate information and credible, compelling stories.
  • Conduct scenario planning and know in advance what types of misinformation pose material risk to the organization or its stakeholders.
  • Build partnerships with credible stakeholders.
  • “Pre-bunk” myths, lies and inaccuracies.
  • Maintain a constant state of “yellow alert,” with teams that are prepared and empowered to fight misinformation quickly and comprehensively.
#5: With more focus on crisis preparation and prevention, response and recovery become faster, cheaper and easier.

Finally, we return to the theme of crisis – the word that best defined the context of pandemic communication.

As COVID gradually recedes from our daily consciousness and new threats emerge, boards and C-suites are increasingly focused not just on crisis response and recovery, but on crisis preparation and prevention. I’ve long observed that the latter processes aren’t just structural; they’re cultural. This involves intervention at both the organizational and the human levels.

Effective crisis preparation and training equip leaders and organizations with the systems and capabilities that will allow them to anticipate and prevent crises before they happen, and the empathy and agility to act fast when they do.

Communication won’t solve our troubled world’s many intersecting challenges and crises; but only with communication are solutions possible.

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