2020 challenged business leaders like never before. A global health crisis, political division and sensitive conversations around race have put the job of corporate communicators directly into the spotlight. To kick off the New Year, I sat down with Vehr’s President and Partner Laura Phillips to discuss the challenges corporate leaders are facing.

Thanks for meeting with me, Laura, and happy New Year! I know we’d all love to kick 2020 to the curb and be done with it, but as you reflect on the past year, what do you think were some of the biggest challenges faced by corporate communicators? 

I’ve been working in communications for 20 years — much of it in crisis and issues management — and I have never faced such intense, widespread challenges. 2020 spawned global financial distress and threatened our health, our safety, the future of businesses and, ultimately, the future of our country. These threats, so significant individually, exacerbated one another and melded together; you couldn’t tackle one challenge without recognizing another.

Good communicators had to adapt and pivot, whether developing a marketing campaign, press release, customer outreach or internal email.  Not too many years ago, we talked in terms of the changing news cycle. Today, information flows at a far more rapid pace, and it’s 24/7. Communicators had to maintain diligent awareness of countless evolving issues while being cognizant of the big picture and the challenges faced — or opportunities created — for their business.

In the past year, it seems like business leaders themselves have been called upon to communicate more than ever before. Is this what you’ve seen?

It is, Max. CEOs often are the face and voice of a company, especially when dealing with matters of great significance. For example, in 2020 we saw airline CEOs addressing aircraft cleaning procedures via video, customer emails and website landing pages. Why? Because it has been a top priority for airlines to reinforce the enhanced health and safety measures implemented to keep travelers safe amid a global pandemic.

Countless leaders across all industries have been more visible for their brands over the last year. Yet, even the boldest and most authentic and impressive leaders can come across lackluster and detached if their actions, messages and tone are not easily understood and effectively articulated. Even great leadership requires sound communications strategy.

It’s one thing to talk about your safety protocols, but it’s another to speak to the future of your business. How are these leaders supposed to communicate through all the uncertainty?

While there are clear-cut rules regarding projections and financial disclosures for public companies, conveying hope and guidance to an internal team and keeping them informed about general business and other matters that directly affect their everyday can go a long way in maintaining engagement and alleviating additional stress.

Understand the concerns and needs of your most important stakeholders. Many employees question: “When are we returning to work? What if my child is still learning from home? What if I have a compromised immune system? Is my job safe?” Employers don’t need all the answers but opening the lines of communication and keeping team members “in the know” is essential.

It sounds like there is a lot of nuance when it comes to what is top-of-mind for one stakeholder versus the next. How do business leaders address that?

A good leader is a good listener who makes it a priority to understand perspectives and experiences broader than his or her own. This perspective also must be broader than that of a senior leadership team. Whether establishing advisory groups with ample representation from around the organization or implementing other reliable research mechanisms, senior leaders and those ultimately responsible for communications strategy must be informed by these insights.

In the past year, we have seen a growing demand for business leaders to speak out on social issues and events with transparency. What advice do you have for business leaders who feel a responsibility to communicate through this division and strife, but don’t want to risk alienating any part of their audience?

Having a voice in these conversations is so important, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a company needs to take a stance on divisive issues. It can be more detrimental for a company to communicate an empty statement. Can your company help the issue, be a part of the solution or take action that will make a difference? If so, communicate that.

Yes, it is great to hear that your underwear brand is against racism, but if you’re not going to invest time, money or resources into making a difference, how powerful is your statement?

When it comes to the risk of backlash from your audience, it really comes down to whether you are representing the values of your company. Values can’t be compromised. If you have stakeholders who don’t align with your values, then you must be OK with potentially alienating them.

Before we go, I have to ask you the age-old question: What is your go-to coffee routine?

It’s funny you ask as I have a bit of a history with coffee.

I didn’t start drinking coffee until about seven years ago. I was on my way to Columbus with some friends for a marathon, and my friend had bought some Starbucks for us all. I declined at first but eventually relented. It was a salted caramel mocha, and Max, I made it maybe a mile down the road before I ended up chugging the whole thing, it was so good.

A couple months later when shopping with my mom, she offered to grab something from Starbucks, and, in my innocence, I handed her $5 and said “sure, and why don’t you grab yourself one, too!” I was so out of my element when it came to Starbucks, I had no idea how expensive it was.

After a few years of daily salted caramel mochas, I decided it would be easier on my wallet to just start making Folgers at home, which made transitioning in the pandemic pretty easy.

Oh wow, so you’ve come a long way. It’s just black coffee now?

Oh gosh no, Max, hazelnut creamer and Splenda. One step at a time!