On Good Friday (10 April) a handful of people logged on for an EACD Dialogue to further discuss issues and findings that were raised during the recent webinar on ‘communicating in an age of Covid-19’.

The Dialogue started with a ‘temperature-check’ with the participants. Responses ranged from cautiously upbeat – planning for a return to whatever the new normality brings, to some still finding their way through the current situation.

The study highlighted in the webinar led by Phil Riggins had already revealed to what extent the communications function was considered to be a stressful role in an age of 24/7 scrutiny and social media. Mental health concerns were already being raised by practitioners at all levels who felt under pressure to always be ‘on’, crisis-ready and alert to any potential curveballs for their organisations, Boards or sectors.

Had this pressure been magnified by the crisis? Two things stood out from Phil’s webinar:

  1. That a sizeable minority (about a quarter) of the participants polled during the webinar (on 27 March) felt that their organisations were well prepared for the crisis.
  2. Two-thirds believed the crisis would lead to permanent changes in people’s expectations of organisations and brands.

These raised many questions in turn: how were they well prepared? Through experience of similar crises, eg SARS? What form did the participants think these permanent changes would take? What’s the role of comms people in this change? Do they have a role and responsibility to communicate and/or facilitate the change?

Various issues were discussed, such as cultural aspects and the likely causes of the striking social compliance with self-distancing and isolation, even in countries which are more ‘touchy-feely’ and used to living in very close quarters. Could their equally strong sense of family and responsibility to their families be helping them to do that?

Furthermore, the changing terminology and our ability to adapt to suit our current moods and situations were seen as pretty remarkable. Before the crisis, ‘remote working’ was a standard and neutral term but it now seems too distant – and distancing – when we need to still feel connected and together. We seem to need to use words that are more inclusive. It was agreed that it will be interesting to see if that continues.

Others commented that in a corporate setting, the simple cascading of communications from on high is not enough to keep people emotionally engaged and on board. Reverse cascading has made it easier for everyone in an organisation to share thoughts and ideas and has been particularly helpful to those who found it difficult to speak up in face-to-face meetings, for personal or cultural reasons.

Could it be that we’ve been levelled out somewhat and are seeing our hierarchies flattened? When everyone can see each other working at home it becomes more personal and democratic. Internal communications have changed accordingly, as the usual filters are off and the ability to listen and facilitate conversations becomes a more important quality.

For Marielle Harsveldt, it has been interesting to see how her company, a large insurer, Aegon, which has more than 25,000 employees worldwide, has found that it is possible for everyone to work from home and not travel. However, she personally was more concerned about how we will all cope with the lack of personal contact the longer this goes on and if digital working becomes more the norm. Humans need contact and personal interaction.

Marielle also commented that the current situation emphasises even more the importance of communication by leadership. Those who are able to communicate with empathy and on a personal level are the ones that stand out in a crisis. She also felt it was important for colleagues to be able to have separate dialogue spaces.

Leila Meresman of the EACD’s France Regional Group, said she was finding that people were already planning for the new normal. In her work with a specialised retail client in the hairdressing sector, which had been among the hardest hit by the salon closures and no-touch restrictions, some salons had adapted with a short-term solution of providing products to clients at home and offering online tutorials. Even when the self-distancing rules end, she believed people will remain much more conscious than before of their personal space and safety in retail environments but was encouraged by human adaptability and the retail sector’s ability to adapt its spaces accordingly.

Inge felt that the likelihood of real change was only possible the longer the crisis lasts. We are then more likely to adapt to deeper human behavioural changes. Communications as a function could play a powerful role in helping to shape behavioural change. She referenced Jaap van Ginneken, Professor in Mass Psychology: the more we frame and adopt words such as ‘self-distancing’, or ‘the 1.5 metre economy’, the more they impact on how we behave and adapt our behaviours to that new language and reality.

What did the participants think the changes would mean for face-to-face meetings and conferences when ‘normalcy’ returns?

Apart from a welcome return to human contact and interaction, which was vital, the crisis had revealed the importance of keeping the discussions alive after an event, integrating online and offline meetings and breakouts better and studying the results of both approaches.

The discussion was wrapped up by noting that empathy and listening have so far proved to be powerful tools in communicating and coping with the crisis. It will be interesting to see if they prevail. The EACD will continue to study the changes and the impact on the communications function, reporting regularly through the newsletter, website and webinars.