Since the COVID-19 outbreak in January, my colleagues and I have been in conversation with communications leaders to monitor different responses to the pandemic, see "The Big Picture", understand its implications, and develop some useful insights. Our focus is on internal change, culture and communications.

The situation has challenged even the most seasoned crisis communicators who have drawn on well-honed skills and hard-earned experience to rise to the occasion. Now many are beginning to tackle a different kind of challenge and some have not fully realized how fundamentally different it will be.

Over the past couple weeks, there's been a distinct shift in attention from managing dispersed and home-bound employees to figuring out how to bring at least some of them back to the workplace. Much attention is being paid to practical issues like new health measures, office configuration, determining which workers will be ordered back first, and so on.

Understandably, the mindset of the executive team leading business resumption is the one required to answer a thousand questions at once, which is the task of those figuring out how everything will work in the new normal. Communicators are scrambling to develop the messages and plans related to each key decision.

In short, the transition team and communications team are working in crisis mode. The new challenge is for them to shift to a transformation mindset. The difference could be seen comparing the quick, decisive approach of firefighters racing to contain a wildfire to the careful consideration framing every thought of climbers preparing to ascend Mount Everest.

When communicators are in a crisis, they focus on the problem at hand. They make do with the people and organizational structure currently in place. If stretched thin, they sometimes secure outside support with crisis expertise. Budgets are usually not an issue. The crisis usually involves some external threat and the key stakeholder audiences are mostly external as well -- investors, regulators, customers, etc.

Large scale transformation of a company -- perhaps in the context of the entire sector's transformation -- is a different matter entirely. 

Throughout the coming transformation, communications leaders will be advising top executives and managing their staff through a prolonged period of extreme change. The focus will be internal, as will the most important stakeholders. The key to success will be the ability to manage human emotion, psychology and behavior. For those leading the effort, it will feel like a tough climb up a great mountain. 

With a multi-year, monumental effort ahead of them, communications leaders need to make sure they have the expertise in their staff and the right budget for a major undertaking. Moreover, they need to shift mental gears to place great weight on understanding how employees are experiencing the change, because that will be the key to success. This is different from the traditional communications model that defines success as expressing what executives are trying to convey. 

The big consulting firms understand that major transformation is underway, and they are already angling for assignments to guide companies through wholesale change. Significant dollars will be dedicated to develop and implement the strategies the consulting firms produce.  Savvy communications leaders will ensure that the communications related to the transformation are well funded. They will not allow their critical function to be treated as an afterthought. At the same time, they will assess their team and department structure to ensure they are up to the challenge.

The most forward-thinking executives we’ve been talking to have already shifted beyond crisis management to the management of full-scale transformation. Many other communications heads will soon follow; and they will find their focus shifting to new challenges requiring them to balance trust, loyalty, perceptions of risk and fairness, business acumen, productivity, efficiency, technology, culture, values and purpose.