The Constant Challenge of Changing Crisis Communications
OPENING BEFORE EXCERPT
The following is an excerpt from The Evangelists: Insights from Leaders of the Nation’s Most Beloved Brands. Written by Pancho Dizon, this chapter is titled “The Constant Challenge of Changing Crisis Communications.” In it, Beth Ballesteros, the VP of Growth of Eastvantage, is interviewed about how the organization executes its strategy in crisis management.
Imagine being an employee in the middle of a pandemic, understandably working from home, and opening up your laptop each day to attend to client needs. The COVID-19 pandemic has been rough on many companies, but yours has come away relatively unscathed: 100% operational on a work-from-home setup, with low attrition both on the employee and client side.
If you are working in Eastvantage, this is no hypothetical scenario. Eastvantage, a business process outsourcing (BPO) company managed a smooth transition to the new normal. In two days following the Metro Manila lockdown, approximately 85% of all operational accounts were set up for remote work, and by March 23, all accounts and departments were 100% operational.
Eastvantage VP for Growth Beth Ballesteros was the person tasked to steer the Business Continuity Planning (BCP) just weeks before COVID-19 began disrupting the Philippine economy. With 14 years of experience in BPO corporate communications, Beth was instrumental in ensuring that Eastvantage had a decisive BCP and crisis communications strategy.
“In the middle of a difficult situation such as in a pandemic is when you actually need to communicate more than ever,” she explained. “Before, you wanted to take up as little of the time of C-level clients in corporate communication, but during COVID-19, we realized they actually wanted to hear from us constantly and consistently. They wanted reassurance―
they wanted to know that our company had a detailed plan for them.”
Ballesteros recalled that manager-level interactions needed to happen on a more frequent basis. Whereas manager meetings used to happen on a monthly basis, the crisis now necessitated weekly status updates via Zoom or Google Hangouts. These meetings would cover productivity, operational hurdles in the remote work setup, internal issues, and other pressing matters.
Although department heads and managers were empowered to take ownership of their own domains when it came to client and employee communication, the reality was that the messaging was carefully formulated and calibrated from the mothership—the BCP committee, composed of the management committee and the operations support team.
“The pandemic made us shift our mindset from planning the company’s long-term future to containing the virus and saving jobs, ” said Ballesteros. “Then it went from that big picture scenario to concerns over streamlining work from home operations and so forth. When you pivot from strategy to strategy as frequently as we did back then, it only takes one instance of miscommunication for trust to collapse.”
Ballesteros advised teams who found themselves in similar situations to never meet with clients unprepared. Long- and short-term goals of both parties, key performance indicators, and the frontline owners of outcomes should be crystal clear from the get-go. Being prepared also entails that decisions and details both big and small were agreed upon internally, so that disagreements do not happen in front of the customer. This pursuit of trust and understanding was paradoxically also the source of criticism. According to Ballesteros, before an intelligent consensus can be reached, it was essential to welcome dissent, debate, and discussion. Thankfully, Ballesteros noted that Eastvantage is an egalitarian company that encouraged employees regardless of rank to make their voices heard without fear of retribution.
“You need a sounding board for your ideas, this can mean releasing surveys or holding focus group discussions involving frontline employees,” said Ballesteros. “You cannot underestimate the power of the general populace. Their buy-in on a proposition is a key indicator that that idea makes sense.” As ideas were funneled through the different groups of people, all of their input can help refine and eventually polish the end product. In Eastvantage’s case, bouncing concepts around assisted them in delving into the mind of their customers and better anticipating their needs.
Ballesteros noted that it also paid to shift communication styles according to changing contexts. What this meant was that prior to the pandemic, Eastvantage often concentrated on reporting concrete numbers and statistics to assure the client that progress was being made. Still, this did not mean their approach had to become entirely impersonal. “When the community quarantine measures’ effects began to be felt, our clients needed a closer, more personal connection,” Ballesteros said. “We had to shift gears and strike a balance between keeping professional concerns on the table and addressing all their concerns about their offshore staff’s personal welfare.”
Ballesteros believes that the lessons in crisis communication from this unprecedented time will continue to ring true in the future where COVID-19 will no longer be as widespread as it is in 2020. Setting expectations, follow-through, consistent communication, and humanising the situation—these were key elements that allowed Eastvantage to soldier on steadfastly even despite the disruption from COVID-19.
To get more insights from other marketing leaders like Beth Ballesteros, please check out the full book, available for purchase here.
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