Communicators should shine spotlight on the forces of good during crisis

Guest Column: Nikhil Dey, the Vice-Chair of Weber Shandwick India, shares key takeaways from the 3rd edition of 'Creative Sandbox', a symposium for senior communicators

e4m by Nikhil Dey
Updated: Apr 27, 2020 1:58 PM
nikhil dey

The third edition of the online ‘Creative Sandbox’ brought together a group of senior communicators from the FMCG and Hospitality industry. The idea was simple - to exchange views, share learnings and find best practices in creative communication, during these unusual times. At the end of an hour together we had 5 key takeaways.

Human stories of Victory and Vulnerability are coming to the forefront across companies. The sales force, delivery force and factory force of FMCG and F&B companies are emerging as a force of good in COVID times. There were a number of stories and example of these team members going above and beyond the call of duty. The courage and kindness of powerful teams was a clear common denominator across companies. The need of the hour is to bring to the surface, stories of victory and vulnerability that encourage the great work these teams are doing.

Sujit Patil, Vice President and Head - Corporate Brand and Communications, Godrej, shared his view on this new force of goodness that is on display “one of the most important facets of an organisation is going to be the frontline salespeople. There has never been more emphasis on the focus of reaching products to the consumer. Supply chains are critical from the factory to the point of sale. These teams are real corona warriors”. Karishma Bhagi, Senior Manager, Corporate Communications of Kellogg’s paraphrasing her CEO said “we are not in the business of selling cereals, we are in the business of moving trucks right now” a clear example of how businesses are viewing these really critical workforces.

 Nirjhara Rastogi, Corporate Communications Lead at Tetra Pak South Asia elaborated on how communicating with the factory force is a top priority “The factory shop floor has been in focus as well as engineers at customer plants. Keeping these groups motivated is really important.” She elaborated on how this was being done “CEO communication has been of two kinds. One is a 15-day outlook on the evolving external environment, and the other is ‘above and beyond’ stories of team members focussing on how they are supporting customers and country.”

Talking about the role of stories that celebrate vulnerability as a strength, she added “Our colleagues have also been sharing mildly embarrassing moments. For E.g. one of our colleagues was on a VC with his bosses when he came into the frame inquiring if he’d be ‘Ok’ with Khichdi for lunch.. Real stories like these humanise the whole situation and go a long way in creating an overall positive environment.” Turning the spotlight back on victory stories, Nirjhara said “We are also using yammer to share hero stories with the larger organization. We are crowdsourcing these stories and using a #TetraPakStrongTogether and that’s working really well.” 

 Sujit from Godrej had a similar experience to share “Our team at Godrej Appliances created a video of employees doing household chores.  #HumSabHomemakers featured employees from different functions contributing to their household responsibilities.” He further added that this initiative started out as an internal campaign but they are now also sharing it externally.

 Local Leaders are the light that shines the brightest. Who do teams trust the most? The answer is simple people they know well. I trust my Area Sales Manager / Plant Head / F&B Manager was the common refrain. Teams want to hear from people who they know and trust. The next wave of communication must be from local leaders. Global CEO’s have set the tone and have shared their message and vision. While that is necessary and reassuring, people want to hear from someone they know personally. So, another key point that emerged from the discussion was that the CEO speak needs to be reinforced with the voice of local leaders.

 Communications can shine a spotlight on this spirit of collaboration and celebrate these #CovidWarriors. Sharing his views on this, Sujit said “People look up to their immediate boss and leadership. So the lesson is to let them lead the communication to their teams.” Who communicates has been extremely critical. How do we communicate to the families of people working in factories? They need to be reassured that their loved ones are being protected.”

 “Factory manager and heads of the plant communicate daily. Facebook at work is packed with messages for the factory workers. The CEO is writing mails to them to recognise their efforts. We have seen success when local leaders communicate. We focussed on messaging to families of the factory teams. Videos created by the manufacturing heads are being shared with their teams and families on WhatsApp. We have started something called leadership speak. Leaders across the country are recording pieces about how they are coping with the lockdown. The tonality is positive. It’s about learnings during lockdown. It’s like a cauldron full of realisation that is being shared and the quality of conversations has gone up with this sharing.”

 Bringing in a perspective from the Hospitality industry, Ruchika Mehta Corporate Director - Communications & Public Relations - The Park Hotels, shared thoughts on the power of training teams on how best to respond “Sanitation and hygiene became such an important part of our strategy. We began this ahead of the lockdown. We created different scenarios and basis that created different training sessions including with doctors on how to handle each situation. There is such a high level of anxiety in a hotel environment both from guests and staffs. Hence both stakeholders, employees and consumers needed to be reassured.”

 Arpan Basu, Director & Head Communications at Coca-Cola India & South West Asia agreed and added “CEO communication works but teams across the country relate best to their line managers and their local leaders and immediate leadership more. The believability is much higher especially in the sales force to the guy they report to every day. Leveraging local leaders is crucial. Communicate but communicate through them. There is a sense of insecurity that is lingering somewhere. Keeping employees engaged and gainfully so is something HR and Communications together can solve.”  


A “Friends and Family First Approach” was the third point we all agreed on. In troubled times, friends and family are the people we look to for support. Companies that recognize  their employees are part of their work family and treat them with care and respect will be the winner when we come out on the other side of Covid.


Arpan Basu summed this thought up beautifully when he said “When you are in distress who is the first person you turn to? Your family. If your employees believe that the company they work for is an extension of that family, they will turn to you first rather than go outside.... How can we help you is a daily question we ask every employee. This gives a sense of belonging. The sense of insecurity comes down with initiatives like this. It’s not rocket science. It’s about dealing with emotions and fear.”


Elaborating on how this sense of care and concern for the work family is being communicated, Sujit shared an example “We did a small video plotting the places where people are sitting at a distance of 6 feet apart. It’s showing how a limited  staff is operating in a safe way. When they arrive there is a temperature check being done. They are given masks. These are the content pieces that reassure families that when my spouse goes to work care is being taken for their safety. This linked to the fact that they are doing something for the nation, like producing soap that is much need, makes them one of the corona warriors” So communications to all stakeholders, including the extended family of an organization, which covers all stakeholders needs to be crafted keeping this in mind.


Telling the CSR story tastefully. The other point our discussion touched upon, was the need to do good, and not get preoccupied with seen to be doing good. Truly a time when actions speak louder than words. Genuine acts of courage, compassion, caring and giving will stand head and shoulders above those that scream for attention. In fact trying to put the spotlight on CSR activities at a time like this can often backfire. While there was an agreement that communicating to help the cause by getting involvement is indeed required, the CSR story needs to be told tastefully. A case in point was shared by Arpan when we explained “work has changed. Life has changed and the way we communicate has changed. Press releases and press conferences may not be as valid as small little videos and snack-able content disseminated in multiple languages across regions taking hyper local communication to another extent, is the order of the day” He also added “We as Coke are working closely with the community but we have not spoken to the press about it. Let the good play out in society. Communication today is not about just getting a press article. It is about people who are benefiting sharing their experiences”


Hype up the hyper-local communication. The need to adapt and adopt an extremely hyper local approach to communications was another topic that emerged a winner in the communications tool kit. Much like the local kirana store that has come to the rescue of every neighbourhood, hyper-local communication has gone into hyper drive. Organisations and brands that have realised this need and orchestrated ways in which to serve up byte sized content piece that are in alignment with the overall company values and message have found success.


Arpan summed up the ‘Creative Sandbox’ session saying “Never waste a good crisis. As communicators we need to rise to the occasion.” Actions speak louder than words in times like this and while we must find the right words and images to share what’s going on, the key is to take decisive and compassionate action. Shine a spotlight on the forces of good that are tirelessly working to take us down the road to recovery.


So, in a nutshell here is what’s working this week…

What – Be a force of good. Share those human stories of Victory and Vulnerability.

Where – From the frontline of this battle, about the people not the brand.

Who – Told by local leaders, keeping the ‘one voice’ of company purpose aligned.

Why – Its believability that matters most, bringing alive ‘CEO speak’ on the ground.

How – Hyper local. Multi-platform. Multi-lingual delivered with genuine care.


May the force be with you.

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