Our ‘Rosie the Riveter’ moment?

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Will IC’s tactical success in early COVID undermine our strategic positioning? 

“We finally have our seat at the table”

“We’re being recognized for our value and importance”

“As a result of what we’ve done with COVID-19, Internal Communication is now seen as indispensable”

The global COVID-19 crisis sparked the sharing of numerous quotes like this in its early days, as corporations commandeered their in-house IC functions to drive crisis communication with their employees.  

At a time when most other IC activities (and the in-house and external pros driving them) were stopped in their tracks, IC pros driving COVID-19 communication often experienced high visibility and higher-than-usual access to senior leaders who had a genuine need for their support.

But as the Chinese character for Crisis combines ‘danger’ with ‘opportunity’, I see considerable danger in overstating and overlaying IC’s COVID contribution:

It’s vital to remember that the main IC work done in the early stages of COVID-19 was ruthlessly tactical – getting directions and instructions to employees under pressurized circumstances. 

This is what was needed at the time.  And much of it was executed brilliantly. But aside from aiming to provide reassurance, very little of it was at the higher strategic end of our repertoire.  

Consequently, if the COVID-19 crisis was the extent to which leaders had paid attention to IC over the last X number of years, what they saw is what we’ve said we’ve outgrown – an exercise in high-speed, high pressure, one-directional instructional comms.  

But a great record of that kind of execution is not a natural stepping stone for moving up the strategic food chain. Embracing a collective narrative of executional heroism reinforces a perception of our value as being little more than a corporate megaphone to be hauled out mainly for emergencies.

I point this out not to put a cloud over my colleagues’ achievements of the recent past. The cloud is coming the other direction – the massive changes organizations will have to make in the near future.  

As the early stages of the COVID-19 epidemic give way to the acceleration of the COVID-19 recession, organizations will have much more complicated needs and demand more strategic involvement.  Not only will organizations be cutting heads and retrenching from markets, they will need to gain victories when resources are constrained and many of the rules of business are fundamentally altered.

IC has a hell of a contribution to make in getting business through the COVID-19 recession – as a catalyst of innovation, in optimizing and accelerating organizational connection, and ensuring increasingly tight alignment between intent and action. But the key to being able to make that contribution is being seen as being a function that gets it.  

There may be some who want to bask in the afterglow of what, in all fairness, has been one of IC’s great recent  successes. But to overplay that success may put us in the position of Rosie The Riveter, the U.S. wartime workplace heroine who embodied the female contribution to the American war effort.  https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/rosie-the-riveter. Rosie was lauded for her heroism, and remains famous to this day. But when the men came home from the War, only a tiny proportion of women were left at the rivets, and female pay was a mere fraction of the male norm.  

There is no need for this to be our Rosie The Riveter moment. But to be heroes of the COVID-19 Recession, we need to keep our eyes on the opportunity, and on a sustainable prize of making more lasting, creative, and strategic contributions to the war at hand.


Kevin Ruck:

Interesting thoughts Mike.

I would echo your sentiments about the ways that internal comms people have risen to the immediate challenge. There’s a lot of inspirational work going on. Inevitably, much of it is pretty tactical in the sense of tactical being simply about informing people…albeit very fast in this situation. 

Getting key information out in a crisis can actually be a stepping stone to a more strategic role. Doing the essential stuff well is actually part of being strategic in one sense. However, being strategic is more than just this. Being strategic incorporates an evidence-based approach, setting KPIs and applying robust principles for good and ethical practice into effective plans. It also means listening to employees as much as telling them what they need to know. This will be essential as we go into change management communication in the coming months. 

There are signs that internal communication has been evolving into a more strategic function in recent years. Many internal comms people do get strategy all too well, it’s just tough to be strategic when you are in a small team with heavy expectations to constantly send out stuff. If smart internal comms people leverage some of the current interest and recognition of what they do, then I’m optimistic that this will be less a Rosie the Riveter moment and more of a long-standing and profound change in the way that internal communication is recognised.

Mike: So, in other words, Kevin – it’s up to us to sustain the gain? I get that.

Belinda Gannaway: 

Really interesting read. I agree with your key points. 

I’m not convinced however about the metaphor here: ’put a cloud over my colleagues’ achievements of the recent past’ and ‘The cloud is coming the other direction’. I feel it obscures the message.  

Mike: To be clear, the coming of a recession/depression is a pretty dark cloud. The battle for continued or increased comms spend will be taking place in the worst economy since WWII.

Isn’t the point not that the good work of recent weeks will be forgotten (does it matter if it is?), but that there are bigger challenges still to come. Surely, we should be looking not for commendations for great work, but to seek to understand what worked and what really was in service of our people and their sense of certainty, safety and security. 

Mike: Do we want to reward what was reassuring about certainty, safety and security? Or about what can increase resilience when certainty, safety and security is not guaranteed?

I also have a thought on your suggestion that ‘there may be some who want to bask in the afterglow of what, in all fairness, has been one of IC’s great recent successes’.

You may be right – but I would imagine this would be very, very few. While it might be tempting to celebrate a job well done, the real benefit here is to mine into the detail of what was done and how it really helped people. What did we do well? What could we do better? What did we learn? 

Mike: Fair question – there are clearly some positive lessons to learn from IC pros’ service during the epidemic. But the next wave will be different and come at us really fast.

Trudy Lewis:

Great piece to kick this off – I agree Mike, practitioners are ‘indispensible’ and have done an exceptional job, which must be applauded. However, I too am not so sure leadership see them that way, when it comes to strategically planning the next steps post-pandemic.

Mike: Precisely why we are having this conversation.

Don’t get me wrong, there is no doubt that they are incredibly grateful for the work done. The expectation will be that things can be done just as quickly without IC’s initial involvement. 

Mike: Especially once we get out of crisis mode!

Crisis truly represents ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’ and with the challenges to come it’s important for communicators to be aware of this. The danger will be to remain in this, sort of, false sense of security and continue to demonstrate the ability to react quickly. But the opportunity is great in that this exposure and heightened awareness of internal communications can be cleverly converted. IC can be positioned as a business-critical function that is sought after as change is being planned or strategic decisions are being made.

IC leaders need to smartly and quickly present themselves as the key to getting the next stage of this pandemic right.

Mike: Exactly why our conversation is timely.  

This time, there might not be time to churn out communications at pace. As leadership teams are gathering to decide on the future of the organisation, IC practitioners need to find a way to be right in the centre of those discussions to promote the importance of continued, open and honest communications to keep employees engaged.

Mike: And for extra points, to be able to say why communication and IC infrastructure are now fundamental and embedded parts of the organizations that need to be looked at strategically and proactively.

To Kevin’s point, aligned to that is the need to listen – to find ways to hear from employees before creating more information that might not be relevant to where they are post-lockdown. Engagement is continuous and employees may have been coddled with information and communications through the crisis to keep things going, but now the concerns will be about what’s happening to their jobs and livelihoods – the future.

Janet Hitchin:

So great that you are opening this debate up Mike. This is an excellent question and one that we need to be answering as a profession. 

Mike: Thank You!

IC is so much more than reactive crisis comms and, we’ve proved we rock at that. I’ve been talking a lot about the importance of commercial savvy and business acumen in the last few months and now more than ever is the time for us to show what we can really do. 

We are being told of a coming recession, on May 7 the Bank of England said the UK GDP could shrink by 14% in 2020. A bigger recession than the financial crisis, 9/11, SARS or anything else we’ve seen. IC are in the perfect position to support the business and leaders by focusing teams on commercial and business goals – distilling and crafting messages, sharing stories, opening up the dialogue across the organisation and creating an environment and vehicles for teams to understand how they can work together to succeed. 

Mike: Agree. But recession is a different ball game than health crisis. We earned our place for the health crisis. We will need to fight for our place in a recession. Time to take the gloves off.

Adam Fuss:

Mike, excellent piece!

A lot of business leaders I’ve talked to, including in organizations I’m working with, are speaking of a desire for the post-COVID world to look very different. Even if it were possible, they don’t want to recreate the pre-COVID world exactly as it was. They really do want to take lessons learned from this crisis and make lasting changes, keeping what has proven to work well (e.g., greater flexibility with working from home, simplified decision-making processes, streamlined operating procedures – you name it).

I think that we as IC professionals need to be thinking along similar lines, which is to say, not necessarily focusing on the age-old question of how we strike a balance between being strategic and tactical, or by focusing on abstract notions of being a trusted advisor or business driver, but by being deliberately strategically tactical in our day-to-day.

What do I mean by ‘strategically tactical’?

My experience with frontline communication work in particular over the past several months has made two things abundantly clear. First, leaders are going to need a lot of help with tactical communication at the other end of this crisis, just as they did at the onset. We should be rigorously gathering feedback from employees and sharing it with leaders, raising red flags, and even beginning to draft communications that may not be used for weeks or months from now. FAQs, town hall talking points, workplace opening memos – you name it. They’ll need lots and lots of revision for sure, but leaders will appreciate the foresight.

Mike: That’s ‘tactical’ – but it’s also the right stuff that’s needed to make intelligent strategic decisions and to build stories that are credible. 

Second, more than ever, leaders will continue to need help communicating to their teams on everything that falls under the category of ‘business as usual’. Whether we know it or not, we as IC professionals are well positioned to help sales leaders get their teams selling more. We have a big role to play in helping operations leaders get their teams to operate more efficiently and safely. Function by function, the examples are numerous. In a dark economy that’s only going to get darker for the foreseeable future, a lot of leaders are going to need someone capable to step up and say, ‘I’ve got this’. We as IC professionals can be that someone.

Mike: Great build, Adam – would like to see you build this out a bit more.