Communicate, Consistency and Collaboration – Covid Crisis Management

The coronavirus crisis has emphasised and exposed how critical corporate communications and public affairs has become for government and industry. Navigating through what could be the most challenging period in our generation demands clear, consistent, and concise information to effectively manage individuals, communities, institutions, and businesses large and small.

As often quoted, it takes a crisis to drive change – and there has been a real change in communication and stakeholder management over the past decade largely driven by technology and innovation. Now due to the evolving crisis, we are experiencing rapid and ongoing change, and this is testing the capabilities, agility and adaptability of business and their ability to communicate and manage customers, staff, suppliers and landlords, regulators and owners and shareholders.

Knowing how to communicate authentically, empathetically, and appropriately to stakeholders and employees in ambiguous times is more important than ever. Stakeholders need to have confidence in advice, and staff and stakeholders are more likely to have that confidence and trust when that advice comes from an authoritative source.

Drought, bushfires and now the pandemic have enhanced the Government’s capability and capacity to carefully consider and deliver communications that is aligned to the operational crisis management phases of react, respond and recover. As Executive Director of the recently formed NSW Government agency, Disaster Recovery, Resilience NSW, Marg Prendergast has one of the most important and challenging stakeholder management roles in government. After leading the bushfire response and recovery, she was immediately faced with the more devastating Covid crisis affecting the entire state. Her valuable advice acquired from thirty years of leading stakeholder management plans in major projects including the Sydney Olympics, construction of the Sydney Light Rail and Chatswood-Epping Rail closure have been employed in her biggest challenge - the Covid crisis.

Marg highlights the key to effectively managing and engaging diverse stakeholders with varying needs, expectations and demands are the principle of collaboration. Collaboration means listening, having genuine empathy, and caring about the outcome. As there is no one size fits all you must genuinely seek to understand the people whose lives are being impacted and work to mitigate this where you can and be honest about what can be controlled and what cannot.

Dealing with the disruption for residents, businesses and, councils and institutions during the Sydney Light Rail construction, required new and creative ways of keeping everyone constantly and consistently informed through every step of the project. Engagement was also proactive, targeted, multi-channel using a mix of; traditional and social media, advertising and old-fashioned door-knocking and letterbox drops. To be effective and genuine, both staff and stakeholders had to be carefully coordinated and where necessary operations and project plans amended to take into consideration stakeholder issues.

To be real and upfront, Marg knows that you never obfuscate or sugar coat things as people see straight through and you will lose their respect and confidence in an instant. The impact and value of your stakeholder strategy should also be monitored by tracking community and media sentiment and messaging and methods constantly adjusted to fill information gaps and address issues as they arise.

Stakeholder success during stressful times also means understanding and recognizing the impact on your team. Stakeholder affected by adversity will impact staff, making it essential to include a plan to manage the various emotions of anger, despair, and grief of team members. It is important to take the time to pause check in with individual team members and proactively plan for team rotations and time out.

For Corporate Affairs professional the Covid crisis brings many challenges but it also brings the opportunity to change for the better – to be successful take a lesson a highly experienced leader and remember to over-communicate, be real and consistent and most of all – collaborate.

Sydney Business Chamber held an online forum on 21 July 2020 with Marg Prendergast, Executive Director of Disaster Recovery, Resilience NSW, as part of a series for Corporate Affairs professionals.

Media contact: David Peters 0413 872 491

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David Peters

Public Affairs Manager, Sydney Business Chamber