Good in a crisis? We interview a Global Director of Corporate Communications about bananas, lockdown and trust

12 Aug 2020

Good in a crisis? We interview a Global Director of Corporate Communications about bananas, lockdown and trust

We quiz Caoimhe Buckley, Director of Corporate Affairs, Fyffes, about good crisis leadership in the face of COVID-19.

What does “leadership during times of crisis” mean to you as a communications professional?

Leadership during times of crisis, for me means putting employee engagement first. For two reasons. Firstly, the performance of any organisation is dependent on the engagement levels of its people. Secondly, because employees are the best brand ambassadors.

If we want our people to take on new measures, such as those imposed by COVID-19, then engagement is critical. Successful performance is always determined by employee engagement and how connected a person feels to their employer organisation. A crisis can destabilise that connection.

"It’s important to increase two-way communication - to listen and to share information frequently, even if only to say, ‘thank you’."

You must address employees’ concerns and acknowledge uncertainty. Providing people with things they can do to empower themselves can help. With COVID-19, that has been the actions we all need to take to keep the people we work with, and ourselves, as safe as possible.

"The Edelman Trust Barometer tells us that people believe employees over NGOs or the media."

That’s another good reason for communicating with your people and giving them the ability to share their stories externally.

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

During a crisis, my experience and current observation has been that the communications professional always moves into the decision-making centre of the business. If they were not already there. And if they are not, they should be.

"Increasingly, boards are focused on managing risk and nothing is so challenging to manage than reputational risk."

Communications professionals manage reputational risk for a living. We can anticipate the emergence of new issues long before they become issues for a company. We do this through stakeholder engagement, consumer focus groups and monitoring the media (including social media).

Our role is to understand the gaps in our capability, learn from the mistakes of others and start to build those channels and proof points way before a crisis strikes. It is infinitely more difficult to manage a crisis or issue once the narrative has gotten away from you.

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

Fyffes is deemed essential because we produce food, so many of our workers must physically go to work. Only the minority can work from home. We have increased our communications, both checking in and listening, as well as communicating the changes to our work practices that will keep people safe.

A regular meeting of operational managers from across the company means we can all hear how things are going in each of the many countries where we have a presence.

As a global business we gathered insights from the Asian experience, moving to Europe, then to the Americas. This gave us the agility in implementing safety measures in many cases way before the local government guidelines caught up.

Local communications are most important. At our global headquarters, we can support those communications and help bring them to life on our global channels.

Employee buy- in on the new measures has been essential. Our global health and safety committee engaged local HR managers and safety officers across the various sites to ensure that employees are given information on protecting themselves and each other.

I’ve been impressed with how managers and HR managers have sensitively engaged people on things like temperature testing and contact tracing, tackling privacy issues and health measures together.

We’re celebrating the ingenuity, creativity and agility of our people by showcasing the responses to COVID-19 in our quarterly newsletter.

"I’m a great believer in celebrating success even if that success is surviving a crisis like COVID-19."

We can be proud of how people have responded in so many ways. From the prevention measures implemented in all our production and ripening facilities, to the global virtual chair yoga sessions and virtual coffee mornings for office workers. Using our supply chain logistics to source face masks. And donating surplus fruit to foodbanks and PPE to healthcare workers.

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?

The health crisis has not gone away even if the lockdowns are starting to ease in many countries. Government relations and employee communications continue to be very important. For example, the Irish and British government want companies to consult with their employees ahead of returning to work. In our company, office workers can benefit from the practices already in place in our farms, packhouses and ripening centres. It’s important to reassure governments that we have the right measures in place.

The next phase will be about performance. The response to COVID-19 has been very costly for all businesses, even those that have managed to keep running. Leadership communication will be about tapping into the creativity and agility exhibited during the crisis to find ways to improve performance.

It will also be important for leaders to demonstrate they trust people and to embrace the positive things COVID-19 has taught us. Like flexible working, working from home, engaging employees on problems and inviting them to be part of the solution.

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

Aside from two people, most of my team members are already geographically distant from me, so my day-to-day team leadership has not changed much.

During the crisis, I hope I spent enough time just letting people talk about how they are coping and being a sounding board.

"As we move toward a new normal, I will continue to trust people to get on with their work. I hate micro-managing people and most people hate being micro-managed."

Two of the people I work with most closely actually started just before or in the middle of the government lockdowns. For them, I need to be in closer contact, help them a lot more and be mindful of how difficult it must be for them starting under these strange circumstances.

I believe that most people will have spent some of this very strange time in self-reflection. This may mean that they have revaluated their priorities, professionally and personally. I would not be surprised if people will want to do professional learning, or work more flexibly, maybe travel less or even change career. As a leader, I think it’s important I’m open to these suggestions and to accommodate these requests in some way.

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

I’ve realised that I leap to the ‘new normal’ very quickly and embrace change easily. I need to realise that not everyone is like me. I need to give people time to get there at their own pace. Not just my team , but everyone I work with.

Agility is more important than a concrete plan.

"Being agile, having a strong culture and investing in that culture continuously is so much more important than spreadsheets and tick-box policies."

No sooner have you developed a policy on something like testing employees than it becomes redundant. Clearly communicating to employees that the company will look after them, keeping the lines of communication open and being receptive to information and feedback is much more important.

Investment in the right technology, especially communications channels, is super important and having this in place before a crisis is key.

99% of the time you can trust people. Don’t invest too much time or develop policies or procedures for the 1% of people who take advantage of the system because it punishes everyone and reduces trust.

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