On March 26, Page and Page Up held a member call on coronavirus moderated by Page Up member Sherry Scott, President at Gagen MacDonald, with a presentation by Levi Strauss & Co.’s Elizabeth Owen, vice president of business performance and workplace communication, and Kate Wagner, senior director of corporate affairs for Europe. They led a discussion about the company’s recent response to the outbreak, including new guidelines for employee work and travel throughout the crisis and investment in strategic partnerships.

More than 90 Page members, Page Up members and their teams participated in the call.

Summary of presentation

Lessons: Corporate Affairs Team

  1. Collaboration tools are no longer a “nice to do” they are a “must do.” If you weren’t already good at using new tools to collaborate and connect, don’t worry. You can learn quickly. We did!
  2. Communicate regularly with your team. Establish a predictable cadence of communications, establish team norms and maintain human connections. From daily check-ins to using video, staying connected is key. Everything’s rapidly changing & people are juggling a lot – emphasize flexibility and assume positive intent.
  3. Transparency helps others get up to speed quickly. We have been an email heavy culture, but quickly realized using a platform like Microsoft Teams allows team members and partners to jump in and catch up easily.
  4. Do your best to get ahead of things, even if only by a step or two. Try to balance the minute-by-minute firefighting with what you need to tackle on the other side this.
  5. Use your existing tools and relationships. Even if COVID-19 is unprecedented, lean on your crisis playbooks and ways of working. It’s easier to turn them on and modify instead of starting from scratch. Use what you’ve created to start your next playbook.

Lessons: The Business

  1. Create a global framework and empower local action. With a clear set of common principles, local leaders can quickly and confidently make critical decisions based different market conditions.
  2. Pull the lessons you’ve learned forward beyond the crisis. This situation has forced our business to adapt more quickly than we are used to, but it’s shown we can. It’s also identified gaps or lack of clear accountability that we can fix permanently.
  3. Best practices can come from anywhere. Culturally, we’ve often had a “not invented here syndrome,” but we are quickly adapting much of the response in our Asia region to what we are facing in Europe and the Americas.
  4. Be true to your values. We have a long history of leading with our values. They define who we are and how we act and guide our decisions, especially the difficult ones.

The group also heard from Veera Heinonen, director of communications and public affairs at the Finland-based NGO Sitra. She reported on how the crisis is impacting Sitra’s funding for work on sustainability and healthcare solutions, for which it is dependent on governments. Sitra has now shifted its focus toward facilitating online solutions and helping with recovery from economic shock, in hopes that this model will spread across the EU to encourage a more equitable, green economy.

Some other key takeaways:

Rapid adaptability is critical:

  • Because the crisis is unfolding in different timelines around the world, global companies should capture and apply best practices from countries being hit earlier.
  • It can be frustrating to work on something that becomes outdated in 12 hours. This makes assuming positive intent crucial.
  • A crisis accelerates adaptation and learning. Comms teams should register their positive adaptations during the crisis, capturing gaps in processes and systems they have not previously noticed.
  • CCOs need to balance putting out fires with long-range strategic planning.

CommTech is newly critical:

  • This need for continuous adaptation is driving a crash course in CommTech.
  • With remote work becoming the norm in the crisis, email is no longer fast enough. To scale its core COVID-19 task force, Levi adopted Microsoft Teams, through which new team members can get up to speed quickly.
  • Comms departments need to standardize on a platform quickly for their team.

Integration remains critical:

  • Corporate Affairs had to work across teams intentionally (IT, HR, etc.) to establish consistency. Indeed, the Corporate Affairs team has taken on the role of connecting the dots, sharing best practices and giving strong recommendations from across the world. 
  • Transparency of information enterprise-wide is crucial to get people on same page.

The human element remains critical:

  • Leading remote teams is different from being together physically. Be mindful of the personal circumstances around which employees have to work.
  • CCOs and their teams need to consider how to equip managers to do this, as well as providing mental health resources.
  • Every company says that remaining true to your values is critical – but at a time like this, that specifically means caring for your people.

Some additional thoughts:

  • There is a radical asymmetry in the pace of change in the world and within organizations. With the onset of this global crisis, the world is changing much faster and more profoundly than any enterprise or its people. That means it’s a 24-7 job just to stay current with the fundamental realities of the economy. It also means that right now there is no standard m.o., no business-as-usual for any company, its supply chain, its HR, its finances, its infrastructure, its facilities, etc.
  • This moment creates, above all else, a profound need for systems thinking. The pandemic affects everything. The range and depth of thinking required is exhausting. Everywhere you look, you find yourself saying, “Oh, that’s different now, too.” Despite the urgency of the moment, do not slip into traditional “crisis communications” mode. Do not hunker down as if this crisis will simply pass.
  • The circumstances are unprecedented, but the situation does not necessarily require a fundamentally new plan for an organization. Be open to major long-term implications for your business, while building your pandemic adaptations on top of your existing plans.

Additional COVID-19 Resources

As communications leaders on the front lines of your organization’s coronavirus response, you need relevant and timely information, including best practices from other companies. Page is committed to providing this sharing platform and distilling takeaways into a useful format.