28 Jul, 2020
‘Stay Alert’: Lessons in communication from Covid-19
This informal CPD article on ‘Stay Alert’: Lessons in communication from Covid-19 was provided by David Brotzen, one of the Founders of Brotzen Mayne, a specialist consultancy focused on effective engagement for successful transformation programmes.
As we emerge from lock-down, organisations will need to ask their employee base to change in ways they can’t even conceive of now. One of the obvious changes is between those who can work from home and those who can’t – but in many respects that ship has already sailed. There will be changes to the working environment for sure, but most organisations will have to go-through fundamental change if they are to survive and then there are the global changes like Brexit to overlay on top. If that’s not hard enough, the employee base (us) have all had change forced upon us over the last few months by circumstances over which we had no control.
In the past, many change management programmes failed to deliver because of poor communication and engagement. The message just didn’t get through or it was often ignored. Over the coming months there will be more messages to land, they will be more complex due to the interconnectivity of all the changes and there will probably be more resistance. This resistance is due, in part, to the sheer amount of changes to absorb which are often difficult to process and prioritise.
So, what can we learn to avoid this perfect storm blocking the delivery of transformation to organisations which desperately need it?
The UK government changed their messaging shortly after the peak of the (first?) outbreak from ‘Stay Home’ to ‘Stay Alert’ … Protect the NHS, Save Lives’. (British readers probably knew it by heart). This modest change kicked-off a whole lot of brouhaha from many quarters. ‘Stay Home’ was a clear, unambiguous instruction. It was necessary at the outbreak of Covid-19. ‘Stay Alert’ was described by critics as unclear and ambiguous. But, was the Government wrong?
From my perspective as a Change Communication specialist, they were trying to move from a simple instruction that might be given to a child, to a mature engagement – adult to adult – where people were invited to take personal responsibility – to be a partner in that change process. I am not trying to make a political point here, about whether it was the right terminology or not. But what is clear, is they were trying to move beyond two-dimensional communication to ‘behavioural communication’. That’s to say, a style of communication designed to move behaviour from the status quo to a new, changed form of behaviour. For example, moving from office-based meetings to remote meetings.
This is probably the single biggest lesson we can draw from Covid-19 about communicating change to an organisation. Certainly, the message must be crisp and clear. Even more important, the communication needs to give the audience a stake in the outcome. They need to understand why the change is necessary and take responsibility for adoption of the change and know how they will be supported through the change. In the case of Covid-19 this could be testing or contact tracing. In an organisational change this might be the provision of training, a user-manual and a help desk for example.
Another lesson about effective communication of change is the need for joined-up communication. That’s to say bringing together seemingly disconnected change activities into one narrative where people can see that all the pieces of the jigsaw fit together to form a clear picture. Internal Communication professionals often refer to this as ‘Air-Traffic Control’. Making sure the communication is delivered to the right person, in a logical sequence, at the right time.
It’s only with clear messaging, where people understand and own the outcome and know how they will be supported, that we can hope to deliver successful change and transformation.
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