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Secondment plans for communications

Making in-house support work post COVID-19

The big story of the past three months has been about disruption — and thanks to lockdowns and downturns, it’s a story that every business, big or small, has shared.  

But with firms poised to return to offices, trying to reposition to retain market share, or just working to revive flagging employee moralea new story will need to be hammered out about what life looks like after COVID-19 

Your post-pandemic story will need to set the tone for your business for the future — and it will need to be a convincing position for your clients, stakeholders and staff, all of whom have an interest in what comes next.  

Yet here’s the rub: you will probably need more help in developing the strategy and communications around exiting lockdown than you did around entering 

And you might not have the internal capacity or resources to frame your recovery story in a way that sets you up for the next chapter.  

Right now we have seen a big rise in the number of businesses looking to external consultants for in-house support, either as a temporary placement to boost internal capacity or to second someone while the right internal resource is found, without necessarily committing to a long-term arrangement.  

 In ordinary times this can be a fairly simple process, but in the midst of an economic downturn it can be a more difficult conversation as you weigh up short-term need against longer-term benefits 

 How does a temporary placement plan work for communications? Here are five common scenarios we have dealt with for clients and how we have found a secondment solution.  

Case study one:

A series of resignations left one of our clients without the internal capacity to deliver their internal and external communications — but before they went back to the market to rehire, they wanted to understand the skills they would require in the team down the track. They weren’t entirely sure what those skills might be, given recent changes in the organisation, but while they tried to figure that out, the day-to-day communications work was piling up.  

Our approach: We seconded a team member inhouse for the organisation, who could triage work and either deliver it or coordinate with our broader team to provide design, government relations, and additional writing as needed. In the meantime, we also provided advice on the scope of work that was likely to be required over time, ensuring the organisation could recruit with greater confidence about the skills required. 

Case study two:

With the departure of a senior manager in the corporate affairs team, one of our clients was left with a strong communications team but no obvious team leader, revealing a gap in experience needed to develop strategy and handle a sudden increase in communications work. As demands on the team grew daily, the business decided it needed help but wanted to utilise its current team as much as possible, while improving internal skills.  

Our approachWith short notice, we undertook a complete communications audit of the organisation with a view to understanding the gap between management expectations and what the corporate comms team was trying to deliver. Time was short, so we needed to provide rapid strategy development and then guide the communications team in its delivery over the course of an intense few weeks. We did this by working in a combination of ways, including in-house and with regular remote meetings via videoconference with the Melbourne-based leadership team. By working alongside junior team members, we were able to help build internal skills capacity and delivered a staged handover at the end of the project so that ad hoc questions and support could be delivered as needed.   

Case study three:

A major WA business needed some urgent crisis support, which went beyond the day-to-day PR help offered by their regular retained marketing and communications agency. With a workplace issue bubbling up, and redundancies on the cards, they needed to be able to conduct confidential planning and strategy workshops, away from the officeAs the situation was in flux, they wanted reassurance that they could broaden the scope over time, depending on how the issue developed. And most important, they wanted advice that was independent, but which would not undermine existing third-party relationships. 

Our approach: Many of our clients come to us for the first time in a crisis, so our onboarding and scale-up approach needs to be immediate. Our practice is to have quick-start terms that give the business immediate support, and we then introduce resources depending on the scale and duration of the challenge. We throw the switch for crisis media monitoring, which is a comprehensive service that can provide real-time monitoring, hourly or daily reports – depending on the issue. In this case, we selected a core team of senior personnel, who worked in shifts with the client from our premises. This meant we were able to minimise internal exposure of the issue, and could insulate crisis management from other communications teamswhile we managed the crisis and defused the situation.  

Case study four:

The coronavirus crisis has required everyone to work in different ways, and for one of our clients, the big change was the move to remote operations, from a workforce in which most communication took place face-to-face. With an older workforce, some of whom rarely if ever logged into official channels, the challenge was to roll out a system that would be simple, lightweight, inexpensive and scalable. They also needed urgent help in structuring the shift to digital rather than interpersonal communication, recognising the long-term damage to the organisation’s culture if workers felt isolated or disengaged. While there was a good team internally, they lacked the digital skill set needed to identify the right tools and steps to take to get online fast.  

Our approach: This problem has been seen across multiple clients, so our digital team had some ready-to-go options for the business they could implement right away, while our design team could tailor how-to guides and support collateral to the client’s brand. Howeverwe also identified that some of the information previously delivered face-to-face — particularly safety briefings —was critical and lives could be at risk if that information wasn’t received. That meant providing advice on how we could use digital tools so the client could track who saw the information, whether they had clicked through for more details, or whether information was being ignored. Our team held a virtual strategy meeting with the executive team within 24 hours of being appointed, developed a scope of work for approval, then delivered collateral that was able to be deployed across the business and multiple channels. We recognise that our role here would be to remain behind the scenes, but to provide capacity support for the core communications team. To that end, we worked with several team members as well as the communications leadership, providing specific support. As an example, for the team member responsible for rolling out announcements digitally, we tested different technology options before settling on the one most appropriate for their budget and capacity, and gave them online training to ensure the technology could be adopted easily — and that they had the skills and knowledge to train others.  

Case study five:

Communicating well is a constant challenge but becomes vital when your business is having to reinvent itself. The COVID-19 crisis has seen many of our clients having to expand their roles from comms and marketing into business development and strategic analysis of where their business should go in a disrupted market. For one client, that has meant looking at every aspect of their business to reset strategic direction, to identify markets that are entering decline and new areas where the business might prosper. The challenge was to undertake this analysis quickly, and to settle on a go-to-market strategy that could be deployed right away.  

Our approach: Familiar with the client, and with a good understanding of their existing audiences and sales approach, we were able to facilitate a strategy session with the leadership and help identify potential opportunities. We brought together a team of our most senior consultants, each with years of experience in helping businesses set the right strategic direction, and ran an expedited workshop that clarified the options. We additionally provided advice on how new markets might be tapped, and how the business should reposition its message. From this strategy, we developed a framework of actions that can be worked through over coming months by a consultant, who will split their time working in-house and externally to deliver on the project.  

As these scenarios demonstrate, a lack of internal resources shouldn’t mean important communication tasks are put on the backburner or, worse, abandoned all together. 

Finding a partner that offers a wide range of services and a vast depth of expertise – like Cannings Purple does – means you can confidently press on to meet the communications challenges and opportunities that are vital to your business. 

Ruth Callaghan is Cannings Purple’s Chief Innovation Officer and a crisis communications expert with more than 20 years’ experience in corporate communications and journalism. Contact Ruth

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