The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding amidst an accompanying ‘infodemic’. Across the world, people are digesting an intense feed of rolling news and statistics, while scientists and medics share breakthroughs, expertise and best practice, all of which are impacting on behaviours and outcomes.
Brands and businesses are getting involved in shaping the information landscape to try and help the maximum numbers to stay safe. Silicon Valley has responded with a shift from user-generated content and algorithms towards official sources and traditional media outlets.
Media paywalls are lifted to share coronavirus-related content. Gucci even handed over its Instagram to the WHO so they could reach its 40 million followers with public service information.
For businesses, this infodemic is propelling them further into the age of radical transparency. In a hyper-connected world, everything is reported, commented on, findable.
Customers and workers post and live-stream more of their lives than ever, and consumers expect to know – or be able to find out – everything about the brands they engage with.
People can see deep inside organisations now. They can see the processes, the people, and what they feel about what they’re doing. They can see the values and the culture in action. There’s no such thing as an internal culture anymore – everything is customer facing
There are corporate heroes and zeroes
As a result of this, we’re seeing an intense period of brand building, with some firms showing the world positive values and culture, while for others, the disconnect between their public image and internal reality is brutally exposed.
The infodemic fuels and polarises the picture, so that we end up with corporate heroes and villains in the minds. Every day, companies are named for their good deeds and shamed for their wrong-footedness or hypocrisy.
A new website, Did They Help?, rates companies and celebs for their behaviour during the Covid-19 pandemic, on leaderboards.
As I write, top of the heroes leaderboard is AT&T, for initiatives including a 20% bonus for frontline employees and waiving some fees for customers undergoing hardship related to the pandemic. The best Covid-19 initiatives are based on concrete actions and come from a place of authenticity.
It’s clear when a brand is acting according to its purpose in the space that it owns. One example is Pret a Manger, which has a long tradition of giving unsold sandwiches to the homeless at the end of each day.
They were quick to offer free hot drinks and a 50% discount on all other products to hard-pressed NHS workers. A great gesture, that also felt right.
Meanwhile Brittania Hotels rates among the zeroes for its knee-jerk reaction to terminate employees with immediate effect, making them vacate their accommodation and asking them to repay any holiday pay they would be owed. (They later put this all down to an administrative error).
And Liverpool FC reversed its decision to furlough staff after fierce criticism that with pre-tax profits of £42million and a strong community ethos, it should not be leaning on taxpayers’ money. Companies’ decisions are now judged on moral grounds, not just what is legally admissible.
Breaking down siloed thinking
The age of transparency poses a challenge for business leaders who view strategy, brand and culture as separate pieces.
It fosters siloed thinking between departments and when crisis hits, and operations have the rug pulled from under their feet, there’s nothing left to guide decisions. Companies that have their strategy, brand and culture aligned, can use the latter to move quickly because they’ve got something to build from.
Strategy is often seen as having primacy over culture, but both should be viewed on an even level, with culture and values also steering direction. The sort of culture needed to operate in times of constant change and scrutiny has to be driven by a real purpose.
Where purpose is enlisted just as a box-ticking exercise or misunderstood marketing tool, it is bound to fail. To build resilience, actions need to be guided by real, lived values across all business functions.
No company culture is perfect – by its nature it’s constantly evolving. Trying to present a perfect face to the always-on digital world is bound to fail. But you can take steps to improve your work culture, and share compelling stories about this journey, with your people, and with the world.
Using values to drive decisions
In their actions in response to the current crisis, businesses are being tested on what they have long claimed are their core values. Some are finding ways to bring aspirational values into their new reality.
The process of change is testing siloed thinking and highlighting how important it is to align culture, strategy and brand. As communications focus on the people that make up businesses, forward-facing companies will align their people and marketing functions.
Those that act according to their purpose and values will nurture positive change in their internal culture. And for workers, customers and wider society, this is the change that they want to see.
Five tips to improve company culture during the crisis
1. Consult your purpose and values as you make decisions. What do they tell you about what’s right?
2. Conventions are breaking down, how can you use this to build better working practices?
3. Don’t try to be something you’re not – you can’t change everything right now
4. Let people know where you stand and where you’re going.
5. Stay calm – keeping business running is top priority
This article was first published on Minutehack.com.