In a year unlike any other, there have been many stand-out moments where the power of communication (both good and bad) has proven to be critical in uniting or dividing us all around a common challenge or issue.
From the global pandemic, to the US election and the Black Lives Matter movement, some of the most important events in recent times will be defined by a single quote, tweet, press conference or image, reinforcing the critical role of communications for brands, politicians, celebrities and leaders, particularly in times of crisis.
Here in the UK millions gathered around their TVs for daily news briefings from the Prime Minister and health advisors in the early days of the pandemic, and the success or failure of these communications went on to have a significant impact on the attitudes and actions of the nation in response to Covid-19.
For business leaders, their public response to the challenges of lockdown, furlough and staff health and safety were fundamental in determining public opinion of the brand, with a clear knock-on effect to customer loyalty and sales. A report earlier this year showed that a massive 94% of shoppers said they’d likely switch to a competitor if they don’t like a brand’s response to Covid-19. At the same time businesses faced the new internal communications challenge of how to keep a fully remote workforce engaged and motivated during a period of extended home working, with many having to manage the sensitive handling of salary sacrifices and redundancies without face to face contact.
While there have been many discussions about who has triumphed and who has failed when it comes to communication in 2020, the common threads in these examples have been a timely reminder of the fundamental principles of great communication and the importance of getting them right.
Here are three of these principles that I believe have proven to be particularly valuable in 2020, and which could benefit leaders from all spheres of public and private business as we head into an uncertain future in 2021:
Tell a story; facts will only get you so far
In a world of data-driven business it can be easy to only focus on communicating numbers and results. These are of course important, but by themselves can become uninspiring and hard for people to retain or relate to. In fact, a study by Stanford professor, Chip Heath, showed that 63% of people could remember stories they were told but only 5% could remember a single statistic. In troubled times such as we have faced this year, statistics can also be interpreted as cold and un-human when a human approach to communications is what is desired and required most.
The limitations of data and numbers in communication became evident this year in the Government’s daily Covid-19 briefings, where fatigue over heavy use of graphs, charts and statistics led many to accuse the Government of trying to ‘baffle with science’ or detracting from the critical message around what actions the public should be taking.
While evidence and data are imperative to building a case and explaining a strategy in business, as in public campaigning, facts can only take you so far. As we have seen from the pandemic, the most powerful and inspiring communicators have been those who have taken facts and used them to tell a story that we can all understand and relate to.
Whether this is frontline NHS workers using their personal social media channels to share stories of their day to day experiences fighting the disease, or local business owners bringing a human face to the economic figures by talking passionately about how they are working to protect their customers, staff and their own livelihood, these stories create an emotional connection with audiences that cannot be replicated with facts alone.
Remember the three C’s
Many business leaders and public speakers will be familiar with the three c’s when it comes to often- taught principles of good communication. The need for effective communicators to be clear, concise and consistent has been powerfully demonstrated during the pandemic, where a lack of clarity and consistency in messaging could have significant consequences.
A good example is the confusion over tier rules and restrictions at regional and local levels, which have led even politicians to admit to uncertainty on what guidelines to follow. Rather than a failure in the tier system itself, this reflects a failure to communicate the system in a clear, concise and consistent way, leading to reputational damage for the Government and disengagement from the public.
Within a business environment, clarity of communication at all levels is fundamental to productivity and performance, but with so much of the UK workforce working remotely many businesses are finding this a greater challenge than usual. A survey earlier this year from Unipos showed that 47% of remote workers who believed their productivity had fallen since working from home attributed this to communication difficulties.
Business leaders seeking a way to improve their clarity of communications and be more concise with delivery may want to look to some of the public figures and politicians who have mastered the use of social media to engage with their audiences. By its nature, social media requires us to convey opinions or directives in a to-the-point and engaging way, so considering how you might say something via a tweet could be a helpful way to focus your messaging on the key takeaways.
Be authentic, above all
This may seem like the most obvious principle for communications of all, but despite this, 2020 has given us many examples of public figures and business leaders who have been called out for a lack of authenticity, or even hypocrisy in their communications which has had a damaging effect on reputations and businesses.
From politicians caught out not practicing what they preach to others around social lockdown rule and social distancing, to business leaders claiming to be positively contributing to the fight against Covid-19 whilst being found to be putting their own employees’ health at risk in the workplace, the public have been quick to condemn those who fail to demonstrate authenticity.
From a business leadership perspective this is not about having all the answers or communicating only when there is good news to tell, instead it requires honesty about the exceptional challenges we are all facing, the steps being taken to address them, and the inevitable hurdles and set-backs that may occur along the way. Truly authentic communication has the power to bring audiences on this journey with you and create customer or employee loyalty that could prove invaluable to the future of a business.
While actions definitely speak louder than words, rightly or wrongly, in these challenging times it is often words (and the way in which they are communicated) and not just actions that individuals and businesses will come to be remembered by. Strong and effective communication will therefore prove to be more critical than ever for businesses and leaders in the year ahead.
Cat Davis, group marketing director for Mission Group & krow Group