News & Insights

Lockdown and beyond: communications lessons from the past six months

This week marked a milestone in the communications industry that, frankly, few of us saw coming.

While many other European countries put guidelines in place slightly earlier, it has now been six months since the UK Government asked people to work from home where possible, and we went into ‘lockdown’, with all of its societal and commercial consequences.

It was also a week when, in the UK, people received the news that social restrictions aimed at preventing the further spread of COVID-19 may be in place for a further six months.

Both give cause for some sombre yet optimistic reflection. But as organisations and their communications teams look ahead to what those next six months will bring, many are also considering what has been achieved – and learned – in the past six. 

Some of our clients, and people we talk to, are wanting to take stock of what has been learned about what and how they’ve communicated since March. The consensus is that while it has been an undeniably tough and uncertain period, we have seen many examples of improved practices, heightened awareness of the value of reputation and increased ingenuity. Many are wanting to embrace that for the long-term, and perhaps shed some less effective behaviours.


So what are the main lessons that corporate communications has learned this year so far? There are doubtless many, but here are some topics that seem to keep cropping up:

  1. Greater clarity about how the corporate communications team functions, and what external advisors bring, is driving operational improvements: after the initial sense of all hands on deck, regular shifts in priorities, the external environment and continued uncertainty surrounding long-term planning means consultancy and client joint teams have a much better sense of who does what, who’s really good at what and the value they can provide. In the case of senior counsel from agencies, that means challenging assumptions, providing an external perspective and applying experience consistently
  2. Building a stronger internal case for reputation and communications takes close collaboration: communications has been in the spotlight more than ever, and its value (and corporate reputation) is always more apparent in a crisis. This has thrown up a level of scrutiny from the top that can be built upon, and clients need their consultancies to help them to build that case, but it needs to be well above and beyond marking their own homework
  3. Clients want better access to senior expertise and experience: this is not new, but has come to the fore, and the nature of it has changed with so much being done via screens. Clients need their consultancies by their side, pragmatically, working with them to help solve their biggest challenges at a time of so much transformation. Often, that means clients having direct peers in their consultancy partners, with comparable experience and expertise, who can lean in regularly
  4. Crisis moments and fast pivots in priorities can unblock bureaucracy and break down barriers: the past six months have forced many communications teams to work across business units, P&Ls and organisational structures in ways that would have previously been unfeasible or unthinkable. It has been a ‘needs must’ period that has shown, in some cases, how things can work better. The trick now is preserving what is most effective and overriding what used to get in the way, which may not be straightforward but can drive effectiveness
  5. Energy and imagination needs to be a shared endeavour: joint client and consultancy teams that keep energy levels high, even with multiple short-term priorities swilling around and resources stretched, have tackled challenges and generated novel communications approaches faster than ever. In many cases closer collaboration has fuelled that, and teams are looking at how it can best be preserved
    Some of these points were touched on, and in cases reinforced, by a discussion held by CorpComms Magazine earlier today amongst corporate communications and corporate affairs directors about what they really need from agencies now.
    In a survey of more than 100 UK-based corporate communications leader shared during the session, responsiveness to client needs remained the most important factor in choosing an agency partner, but was also now at hygiene level. The ability to apply experience and expertise effectively, with wise counsel locked in to the client relationship and a partnership that proved the case for communications to the board, were seen as the most important factors over the past six months.
    Bottom of the list was being part of a network, while the team working directly with the client was fundamental to success. Bottom line: the closer a consultancy is to its clients, and the closer it can apply the skills and experience clients needs at the moment, the better it is for everyone.