STEPPING UP OR TRIPPING OVER: CORPORATE PURPOSE AND THE REPUTATION CHALLENGE OF COVID-19 IN THE PRIVATE SECTOR Corporate Story

The response of businesses to COVID-19 has revealed both saints and sinners. What should business Communication teams be looking out for in their organisations to ensure that their company emerges with reputation intact?

If there was ever a moment for the rhetoric of “corporate purpose” to be shown to be a reality, this is it. The Communications adviser can be the one to validate corporate decisions against the declared purpose and values of the organization. If it doesn’t have them, then identify and consistently communicate an emotionally-engaging strategic priority. In the absence of a defined corporate purpose, assessing the company’s strengths can lead you to identify what would make the biggest difference to your stakeholders. And you can then communicate that as your guiding principle.

The question asked of an older generation ‘What did you do in the great war?’ will be asked of CEOs and companies in the reckoning. If your decisions do not align with your purpose and values – or what the public perceive of them – then you will suffer when the dust settles and assessments are made about who did or did not step up to the mark.

The private sector has commercial imperatives which adds a layer of complexity to executive decision-making. Even to be guided by a mantra of ‘doing the right thing’ raises conflicting demands. The right thing by customers or employees? The right thing by shareholders or suppliers (e.g. Easyjet’s row with shareholder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou over whether to cancel an Airbus purchase contract)? What is the right thing when financial viability conflicts with previously signed ethical behaviour policies about supporting suppliers?

The only answer can be that when making difficult decisions, clearly and concisely communicate not only the decision but detail the rationale for it – and the assessed consequences of the trade-offs and alternatives that you considered. This is not the time for weasel words and corporate speak. And of course you should do so within the context of your corporate story – the ‘who’ you are, not the ‘what’ and ‘how’ you do it – that should frame and contextualise all of your media interviews, presentations and corporate communications.

In terms of effective employee engagement, part of being timely and transparent could be to share plans with staff and solicit their input. This allows them to feel engaged with the challenges the organisation faces – including the difficult trade-offs to be made – and build a common sense of purpose. You may also discover new leaders who come to the fore during crisis and shop-floor champions for what you are trying to do.

And maybe ask the CEO if they can look back with pride and say that the decisions they made were the right ones.