Communication: Messages with a new meaning

May 1, 2020


Strong communication is a fundamental pillar in any organisation’s success. But as the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact professional operations, with remote working and video calling dramatically revising the commercial landscape, are we now at a communications crossroads? Steven Hugill speaks to management, PR and marketing agency owner Sarah Waddington about the value of meaningful messaging in unprecedented times, the benefits of technology in boosting business agility and why COVID-19 has triggered a watershed moment in the way we interact

‘For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.’

Defining what today could be referred to as studying experientially, Greek philosopher Aristotle pinpointed way back in 350 BCE the significance of acquiring virtues to aid our future being.

Essentially, we become something by doing something; we practice skills that help us become better individuals.

As the continuing COVID-19 outbreak skews our traditional business landscape, we are all, as Aristotle theorised, learning experientially.

With technology – perhaps now more than ever – operating as a vital gateway to the continuation of professional and personal connections, we are collectively acquiring and practicing new skills.

We have adapted to video calls; we are making decisions and striking agreements without physical contact; we are conducting conference meetings with colleagues’ faces spread across a computer screen, rather than around a boardroom table.

The old normality is over; welcome to a new normality.

This transition, says Sarah Waddington, managing director of management consultancy, PR and marketing agency Astute.Work, will lead to definitive change around communication in the workplace.

“Coronavirus, in terms of organisational behaviour, has disrupted everything so significantly that there really will not be a way back to what the old normal was,” she says.

“We are seeing people work remotely, with more agile working patterns, and how they are getting the hang of technology to help them do that.

“The new normal will be for organisations to think about the outcomes, rather than the output.”

Sarah, who was the first North East communications practitioner to achieve Chartered status, says it will be imperative for companies to revise strategies after coronavirus.

Highlighting the agility her own business possesses as a virtual agency, she says firms must acknowledge technology’s crucial role in creating malleable working arrangements that are capable of retaining existing levels of client service.

“It will be interesting to see if organisations come out the other side of coronavirus and see remote working as being more efficient and that flexible employment patterns work for them,” says Sarah.

“We are kind of conditioned to think that working hours are between 9am and 5pm – but at Astute.Work we have always had a very different model.

“Good management means making sure teams are able to shift with massive changes and that they are happy and safe too.

“It is about living to work, rather than working to live,” continues Sarah, who is a past president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.

“We have people who have childcare commitments, or elderly parents they need to care for, or who have things in their working week that they need to adapt their hours around.

“All of this is wrapped around making sure our clients get the highest standard of service, which is on time and within budget – and it works.”

That provision, says Sarah, includes ensuring partners are comfortable with their new coronavirus-prompted working environment and that they are able to benefit from technology – and thereby experientially learn fresh working habits – to maintain strong communication links.

“For us, it’s business as usual,” she says, “and we are helping clients acclimatise quickly.

“We’ve been able to provide practical help, but also ask things like if they’ve got rotas in place and what technology – WhatsApp, Microsoft Teams and Zoom, for example, – are they using to help themselves communicate?

“It all helps to keep teams together and make sure the technology side and human side of the impact of coronavirus are covered.”

Another fundamental element of Astute.Work’s support is its collaboration with the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), which aids the latter’s overarching mission to nurture growth and subsequent economic success and job creation.

Sarah’s agency is helping tune businesses into advice channels across the LEP’s North East Growth Hub, which includes a dedicated COVID-19 toolkit.

Featuring help on issues such as financial backing and home working, the resource also provides direction on caring for staff, suppliers and customers, and gives access to official Government guidance.

Astute.Work has also used its expertise to assist the LEP in rolling out the North East COVID-19 Economic Response Group.

Launched as a communicative vehicle to mitigate the impact of coronavirus by maintaining strong economic leadership, the multi-party endeavour additionally includes the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the North of Tyne and North East Combined Authorities.

Providing a unified voice, the group offers reassurance for businesses while lobbying Government for necessary support measures to steer companies, and the region’s economy, through present-day difficulties to plan for long-term recovery.

“Every business facing a challenge in its life cycle, not least in a global pandemic, needs reassurance,” says Sarah, who is founder and editor of the #FuturePRoof books that highlight public relations’ role as a vital management function.

“Sometimes it can be difficult for them to know where to turn and the North East Growth Hub has been quick to act by signposting to help and guidance.

“Every single Government announcement and measure has been quickly updated, and business connectors are working flat-out to make sure companies that need one-to- one support are getting it.

“The LEP recognised that one organisation was not going to find a solution to this crisis, so worked with CBI and the combined authorities to create a five-point plan.

“The response group has one collective voice to help bring the North East back to pre-coronavirus GDP and employment levels, build business resilience and get the region ready for recovery.

“It is a fantastic reflection of the region as a whole; the North East is incredibly robust and generous in spirit. You will always find people helping others here.”

However, while such clear communication networks are making a tangible difference across the region’s business environment, Sarah says there remain lessons to be learned for some national operators.

She points to Wetherspoon pub boss Tim Martin and Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley, who both attracted headlines in the days immediately after the UK went into coronavirus lockdown.

The former sent out a grainy video message encouraging staff to take jobs at Tesco if they were anxious over wages while his bars stand idle, while the latter was forced into a public apology after misguided attempts to maintain trading across his Sports Direct and Evan’s Cycles stores when many other retailers were forced to close.

“An absolutely key element is how companies are supporting their workforces and communicating that support to them,” says Sarah, who was previously awarded CIPR’s Sir Stephen Tallents Medal for exceptional achievement in public relations.

“In a situation such as this, you cannot do enough of that – your staff are ambassadors for your business.

“We have already seen the impact on brands that haven’t supported their workforce, such as Wetherspoons.

“People recognise we are in the grip of a global pandemic and that it’s not acceptable to treat staff in such a way; customers will vote with their feet in the future.

“Sports Direct’s approach to put profits above people has really damaged the brand too,” continues Sarah, whose CV includes an ambassadorial role with the Institute of Directors.

“Mike Ashley’s apology will not mitigate what has been done.

“Instead, people are embracing the brands that are recognising the situation around coronavirus and which are doing everything they can to keep staff safe.

“The food suppliers and supermarkets, for example, are the ones people will remember for keeping the fabric of society together.

“Good leaders immediately take stock of the situation.

“They look at the different options and make quick, assertive decisions based on the evidence they have to best protect their employees.

“The ones that live by their values will create a lifetime of social capital.”

Sarah Waddington

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