2020 will long be remembered as a singularly transformative year. In addition to its more obvious areas of impact, such as health and economy, COVID-19 accelerated systemic changes across global corporations in ways we are still grappling with today. One such discipline, perhaps more acutely affected than others, is corporate communications.
In this piece we explore how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted corporate communications functions and offer a perspective on the implications for the discipline beyond the pandemic.
Never a more important time for communications
The corporate communications function has historically been an underutilized corporate resource. The pandemic dramatically changed that.
Last year, communications departments, particularly those in companies with large employee populations, found themselves on the front lines of managing a crisis no one anticipated. Communicating effectively with employees became the top priority – whether enabling a nearly instantaneous shift to remote work, navigating ways to motivate and protect essential workers who were required to be “on-site,” or having to manage layoffs of idled teams with compassion and dignity.
As the pandemic persisted, the role of communications expanded to encompass yet another added function – that of engaging and supporting an increasingly burned-out workforce. It also supported (and sometimes led) the changes by driving the tone and actions of many senior leaders. As a result, empathy has become a vital attribute of our corporate leaders and their communications with employees.
Changes beyond the pandemic
During the past 18 months, a number of other issues have driven a dramatic change in society’s expectations of corporate social responsibility and engagement. The murder of George Floyd and the resulting global Black Lives Matter movement required many companies to take public positions on complex issues related to racial equity and social justice. The announcements in mid-2019 by the World Economic Forum and Business Roundtable on stakeholder capitalism, and the recent stances taken by individual CEOs and companies on voting rights in the U.S., are additional milestones. All present new opportunities and challenges to communications functions.
These new realities have occurred against the backdrop of many business transformation endeavors. For example, an increasing number of customers now use e-commerce to meet their retail needs and consumer research indicates that this trend here to stay. The communications function has been at the forefront of explaining these changes to employees, customers, communities, policy influencers/makers and many other audiences.
All of these developments further challenged corporate communications departments to think differently about their role and how they meet the demands of the organizations they serve. They understand that their role must continue to evolve to meet the challenges of an ever-changing corporate landscape, leading many in the field to wonder what’s next?
Moving Along the BCW Maturity Model
To map the journey to a ‘next generation’ communications function, BCW developed an organizational maturity model that captures the core activities of a world-class function in three increasingly strategic stages.
The model outlines a progression from ‘Review & Respond’ to ‘Value-Add’ to ‘Strategic Partner.’ It assumes that each of the three stages build on one another.