It’s good to talk. A Director of Corporate Communications on filling vacuums, surviving pressure and having words with your CEO

12 Aug 2020

It’s good to talk. A Director of Corporate Communications on filling vacuums, surviving pressure and having words with your CEO

We ask Stephen O’Connor, Director Corporate Affairs, SIRO, about what his experience of COVID-19 lockdown taught him about good crisis leadership.

Stephen O'Connor

What does “leadership during times of crisis” mean to you as a communications professional at SIRO (an ESB and Vodafone joint venture)?

As a comms professional, in “peace time” or “business as usual”, we’re always concentrating on getting specific messages to different groups. Who are the audiences that are relevant, how do I speak to each audience, what are the messages I use? That’s important in terms of the “normal” delivery of company strategy.

In times of crisis, the potential for things to go wrong remains just as likely as before. It might be a huge negative reaction to strategy delivery, for example. There might be staff disillusionment or exits. Government policy shifts might change the game. A key customer might depart. Those factors are there all the time.

But in a time of crisis, the chance of ending up with a negative outcome increases and reactions need to be swift. It’s important that vacuums need to be filled without delay as people can draw the wrong conclusion and make badly informed decisions.

"In a crisis, decisions happen quickly – there’s no luxury of time."

In “peace time”, if we were worried, we would plan a 6- or 9- or 12- month approach. In a crisis, planning has to happen within a space of days, with the pace of decision-making increasing and the risk factors growing too.

Things can happen in that pressure cooker environment that are hard to reverse. That’s when communications leaders have to jump in – the workload goes up – as companies make decisions more quickly than normal.

The role of the communications professional is to sit alongside that decision-making, audit the communications piece of the decisions and examine them with a full 360-degree perspective.

How will the decision be interpreted, who will it affect and how do you get the right messages out to different audiences?

Essentially, the work stays the same, but the stakes go up, and the intensity and pressure increase.

SIRO is a Joint Venture between ESB and Vodafone which is building a new nationwide Fibre To The Home (FTTH) Telecomms network. When the lockdown started in March the priority for the first two weeks was to ensure that “telecoms” was designated as an essential service by Government so that employees could continue building and operating our sites as appropriate. This was successful as telecoms made the list, but maybe not in the degree of detail that would have been ideal. Yes, the overall goal was achieved, but not completely which meant ongoing engagement with Government, Local Authorities and other bodies was required as the crisis unfolded.

"If you’re not involved in something, a decision can be made and then it is hard to pull it back."

As a communicator, you are more prominent during a crisis and spend a lot more time with the CEO. In normal times, of course you spend time with the CEO, but a crisis shifts communications into an all-day advisory position. As the situation changes, he or she is bouncing ideas off his comms person and other leadership members such as the CFO.

As a comms professional, you’re expected to take control of the message, so it’s no time to sit back. It’s vital to stand up and be prominent as you explain to people that the world/customer/staff/supply chain is watching. Everyone is on high alert for information and, if you don’t give it, they will make up their own mind. It’s essential that messages are well thought-through, timely and consistent.

You must ensure that the company isn’t talking through different mouthpieces. In a crisis, the communicator gets that leadership position without challenge. Nobody else in the organisation is competent enough to understand how the media and external world will interpret and report your decisions and announcements. The stakes are high. Missteps can be costly and hard to reverse.

How has your role in the strategic decision-making of the organisation changed?

Frankly, if a company doesn’t regard communications as strategic, they are an outlier in today’s world.

Most companies do appreciate the role of comms and many have already elevated the communications function into one that is strategically important, often with a place on the leadership team.

Companies understand the need for a good communications strategy and to keep talking to people that can have an impact on your business. Different stakeholders be it staff, shareholders, customers etc all need different mixes of comms platforms (traditional or social media etc) and messages.

To answer whether my role has changed since the lock-down, it’s helpful to understand SIRO.

The company is a 50/50 Joint Venture between two leading utilities in the Energy market (ESB) and the Telecomms market (Vodafone) and that brings with it a more complicated shareholder governance than usual. In addition SIRO relies on government policy, both Central and Local for its build program and on trade associations, customers and a complex supply chain.

As a result, SIRO has many engaged stakeholders already, and is used to communicating with those different audiences.

When you understand stakeholders so well, it is very helpful in a crisis because you don’t waste time trying to figure them out for the first time, what are their priorities etc. Of course, the COVID-19 crisis increased the pace, impact and importance of what we’re doing, but broadly what’s happening has stayed the same.

How is your organisation responding – from a communications perspective - to the uncertainty and fear felt by so many employees at this unprecedented time?

Employees start at their own front door when figuring out what a crisis means. In other words, what does this mean for me, my job, my circumstances?

SIRO is building and operating a Telecomms network so staff worry about what operations will be closed, when we’ll restart building. Will we still have a business on the other side of this? What will the new work practices and arrangements be? Office, or home, or both?

Employees need a lot of reassurance, so there has been a great deal of internal communications over the last ten weeks. A daily business and operations update issued by email to all staff to ensure people were up to date. We did a weekly “Directors video message” for staff explaining what’s happening in the business, and other topics. Finally, there was a monthly all-hands webinar for all 150 staff with different presentations from parts of the business. Attendance was extremely high showing that staff really value communications at this time.

People need to be reassured that the company is on top of it and that there will be life afterwards.

"In a crisis like this, you must be honest and realistic, as well as being reassuring, and visible too."

We are fundamentally treating employees like adults – acknowledging that it’s not a perfect situation and that the business has been impacted materially, but there is a plan in place. Whatever the message, the job is to make employees believe it and gain their confidence.

How will leadership communication need to adapt as we emerge from the height of the health crisis and move into the next phase of the economic impact?

Leaders have communicated far more in the last ten weeks than normal because they have had to. They have had to link in, reassure, communicate a contingency plan. Just look at the Government daily health briefings and regular economic statements.

Maybe positives will come out of that. Maybe the requirement to talk more is one of the legacies.

We have all had to embrace the technology to work remotely – lots of the things we used to do offline are now online and broadly that has gone well. So, we see CEOs doing more webinars and feeling more comfortable with the concept. It’s been so important to talk during this crisis – to have not done so would have left a vacuum that would have caused issues.

It will be interesting to see how things move forward in the future.

"People have become used to a higher level of communication. Will they continue to expect that post-crisis?"

We will probably see leaders being more visible as a result.

How do you think your leadership needs to adapt as we move into the post-COVID phase?

Everyone has upped their game during this crisis. I include myself in that.

I have probably held more team meetings, and probably listened to my own team more.

Being physically apart from the team, I think I now take them for granted less and I’m certainly making more effort to see them and make sure that I’m more available to them. A big part of that is checking in to make sure they are ok. In general, I think senior managers have probably been more compassionate and involved with teams.

As a SIRO leadership team, I think the crisis has brought us closer together. We’ve a daily call and you get all seven people on every day, whilst, in the office, we don’t necessarily talk that much. Now, we’re more in tune with each other and what’s going on, so we’ve seen real operational benefits as a result.

Coming out the other side of this, what are your professional "take-aways"?

We’ve survived, we’ve shown we can be resilient, and we’ve definitely experienced why talking and communicating is important – the evidence is there.

If we had taken a more conservative “quieter” communication approach, there would undoubtedly have been negative outcomes. We’ve been reassured of the importance of communicating, and our industry peers have as well. We have all seen the benefits, which is good personally and professionally as a communications person. Other people around the table acknowledge the importance of the role.

Thank you, Stephen, for your time and your insights.