For many years, I’ve heard some top organizational decision-makers question the value of the communications function. To be sure, quantifying the strict value of what we do is hard, if not impossible. Impressions, ad value equivalents, perception research, social media engagement and a few other metrics are basically what we’ve got.
As a result, Communications is often the first department that gets the organizational ax when times get tough. Programs and campaigns are cancelled, budgets are cut, open positions are eliminated, and people lose their jobs. We are seeing it already as organizations grapple with COVID-19.
This is short-sighted in ordinary challenging times – and COVID-19 make these times anything but ordinary.
While I certainly understand the need for organizational belt-tightening, cutting the communications function is arguably the worst place to do it. Why?
First of all, PR and Communications are the only functions where its leaders and staff are the conscience, consigliere and cheerleader for the organization, both internally and externally. The only function that comes close to this “triple threat” is HR, and their remit is heavily skewed to internal.
Outside of the C-Suite, no one understands an organization and its stakeholders better than the communications team. And these insights aren’t gleaned overnight. It makes no sense to cut what it took years to build; it will take years to build it again when you are ready to do so.
Beyond these important criteria, there are numerous other reasons why Communications is the area you invest in – not cut — in extraordinary times like these.
- Communications helps guide the organization’s response to unprecedented times like these. When do we reopen? What should we say? How do we get our employees back? How do we make it up to them if we had to lay them off? How do we explain the changes we will be making? A strong communications team can help ensure such actions are well-received.
- Communications is the sole function that has its “finger on the pulse” regarding public sentiment. There’s no question that there will be more scrutiny of companies, universities and not-for-profits as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. Organizations will be judged on what they did (or didn’t do) during the crisis, and, among other things, whether and how they are using funds from the Federal Government. Being able to track sentiment and have it guide future actions will be key. The communications function knows how to do this better than anyone else.
- Communications helps (re)establish confidence in the C-Suite/leadership team. Someone needs to help shape, translate and disseminate the leadership cues from an organization’s chiefs. That requires a deep understanding of what internal and external stakeholders want and need to hear. No function is better situated to do that than communications.
- Communications helps an organization avoid tone-deaf or inappropriate marketing. Last week, I received a promotional email from a well-known consumer-facing company. It read “We’re positive you’ll like our deals.” Certainly, using the word “positive” around the time people are dreading a “positive” Coronavirus test result is foolish. But this is just one example. I’ve seen many more. As we emerge from this crisis period, helping ensure the organization’s marketing doesn’t turn people off or, worse, incur the public’s disdain, is a key role communications can play.
- Communications plays a key role in motivating and reassuring employees. Understanding and addressing employees’ experiences, fears, concerns and hopes with effective employee communications will make the difference between a successful emergence from this crisis – and a problematic one.
- PR and communications drive purchasing decisions, influencer recommendations and industry perceptions. With most of the country on lockdown, buyers aren’t attending trade shows, customers aren’t buying products, speakers aren’t attending conferences, and influencers aren’t influencing. When we emerge from the crisis, we’re going to want and need good customer communications so they know about, believe in and buy our products and services again. And, we’re going to need the people to influence such behavior to resume doing so. How? With smartly-planned and executed PR plans and strategies.
- The communications function is best situated to anticipate and respond to emerging issues. There’s no question other issues will emerge. And this is to say nothing of the after-effects of and response to COVID-19 itself. Some of this forward-looking planning may take place in the Legal and/or Strategic Planning departments, but no one will look at this as holistically as communications.
- The Communications team is best positioned to reestablish, attract and retain community support. Every organization has had to step back from its relationship with its communities because of COVID-19. Many have suffered as a result. Having the support of one’s community is crucial to weathering a future crisis. Communications can and should lead the way to navigate reestablishing these relationships in the most productive way.
- Communications helps restore and enhance investor confidence. COVID-19 has hammered most companies’ valuations and upended their ability to forecast. Working with the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) or Investor Relations Officer (IRO), the PR pro can ensure the right messages are developed and delivered, and trade/business/financial media are cultivated to reinforce the same story among investors.
Especially at this point in time, having a strong communications and PR team in place is vital. As organizations look to the future beyond the current COVID-19 crisis, they should recognize how that function should be protected, nurtured and grown. This is one of the smartest and self-preserving investments they can make.