Empathetic & authentic communication will take centre stage now: Ophira Bhatia, Mondelēz

In a chat with exchange4media, Ophira Bhatia, Director, Corporate & Government Affairs, India - Mondelēz International, spoke about the coronavirus crisis, leveraging digital media, and more

e4m by Nafisa Shaheen
Updated: May 29, 2020 1:16 PM
Ophira Bhatia

COVID-19 has brought to the fore leaders who have been working tirelessly to help business tide over these difficult times. And when we talk about such champions, one of the names that immediately comes up is that of Ophira Bhatia, Director, Corporate & Government Affairs, India - Mondelēz International.

Bhatia has been associated with the communication industry for more than two decades now. From beginning of her journey in 1996 with a local public relations firm to working for both national and international markets, she has proven that communication is her forte.

As a diversified professional, Bhatia has worked on ground-breaking campaigns for brands across boards. From corporate reputation management and planning, crisis management and corporate positioning for various brands and firms, she has done it all.

In an interaction with exchange4media, Bhatia spoke about the current scenario, dealing with the coronavirus crisis, leveraging the digital media, managing internal and external stakeholders and much more.

Edited excerpts:

How is Mondelez India dealing with the COVID-19 crisis? What are your views on the current scenario?

As a trusted company operating in India for close to 75 years, our consumers and communities are looking up to us during these times to ensure that the supplies of our products are not scarce. Over the last few months, we have all experienced the importance of availability, safety and convenience of packaged foods in times of lockdown. Our products are an integral part of the consumer’s grocery basket. We have seen consumers seek out our trusted brands like Cadbury, Oreo, Bournvita and Tang – especially as they spend more time with family at home and need treats like their favourite chocolate, biscuit or beverage.

Like all companies, we did experience some disruptions in the initial phase due to strict lockdowns that caused widespread trade closures as well as operational and distribution difficulties. However, we are seeing significant easing of the situation on ground as our manufacturing scales up and our sales and distribution network can more easily service the market. I am very proud of how our teams geared up to meet these unprecedented challenges. So, while we have experienced short-term disruption, business is getting back on track.

Our focus through all of this has been on our people. Firstly, protecting our sales and manufacturing colleagues who have been at the frontline even during the lockdown and ensuring they stay safe and secondly through continuous engagement with our colleagues working remotely. 

How has Mondelez International fulfilled its CSR duties in these times?

We have proudly lived our company purpose of “Snacking Made Right”. We have donated over 140 tons of product to frontline workers and the needy while also supporting them by donating relief kits consisting of masks and sanitizers. We have provided over 134,000 meals to the needy through our NGO partners. We will continue our work to support communities during these difficult times.

Our brands have also stepped up and taken a stand. Cadbury Dairy Milk Thank You bars, which have replaced the CDM logo with the words ‘Thank You’ in 8 different Indian languages, is a great example. We have done this to recognize the unsung heroes, who are tirelessly and generously continuing to work and support us all during these unprecedented times. The brand has gone further and also committed part proceeds from the sale of these special chocolate bars towards the healthcare of the daily wagers via a partnership with NGO Nirmana.

What is the kind of emphasis being given to digital? What are the digital strategies or campaigns being run during these times?

We were already seeing a shift to digital and this pandemic has accelerated the shift. From a brand perspective, we always had a focus on digital as part of our media mix and during these times as more and more consumers spend more time online for information, entertainment and creating content. We continue to align our campaigns with consumer moods and needs. One such example is Cadbury 5Star’s campaign #5StarDoNothingOutside challenge, which was curated to generate some light-hearted content and at the same time equip consumers to better live the new way of life. Through the challenge, the brand reiterated the most important message of today - DO NOTHING OUTSIDE - while maintaining its fun persona.

On the other hand, with India’s most loved biscuit brand Oreo where playfulness was always a part of the brand’s DNA, the lockdown provided an opportunity to naturally advance the legacy and help consumers steer away from the pandemic gloom. Through the #AtHomeWithOreo campaign, the brand wanted to showcase to the world that even if you are locked down, the world is as playful as we make it.

How does corporate communication manage internal, external and stakeholders’ communication?

Corporate communications teams are at the centre of managing reputation and expectations through this time. At Mondelez India, my team covers not only external communications and brand PR, internal communications, we also drive government relations and community and CSR initiatives for the company. So, during this crisis, we really have had our hands full.

 At the start of the crisis, the key focus was supporting the business to get our manufacturing plants operational and support our sales teams in the initial phase of the lockdown. With the directives and legislation from the government, we were at the centre of advocating for ease of business restrictions in partnership with industry organizations. At the same time, internal communications needed to play a very critical role – from the initial phase of informing and updating colleagues to driving resilience, values and a connection to perpetuating our culture.

This has been done through multiple initiatives – that bring together information, build pride, create some fun, recognize the efforts of our colleagues and provide support during this time. Some interesting initiatives included the “Virtual Hi” with our leadership team saluting our frontline colleagues, creating a virtual song and dance album by colleagues collaborating online and asking colleagues to share their time at home. 

We are also staying connected with the entire organization via weekly virtual town halls where we have open and honest conversations about the business and address any questions and suggestions from employees. Organizations are finding themselves communicating in real time as their business changes and adapts on a near-daily basis, internal communications need to keep up. We now need to think more about ourpeople andhelpingthem to make these difficult times as manageable as possible.

Our external communication has been focused on sharing our perspective on business trends, emerging ways of working and our purpose commitments under CSR through impactful storytelling both in traditional and the digital space.

What according to you is the future of communication in the post COVID-19 world?

No one knows what the post Covid world will look like – we are all guessing. However, almost everyone agrees that there will be change. As communications professionals, we will need to approach our roles differently now. In many ways this crisis hits a refresh button and is an opportunity for us to review the work we do through the lens of building reputation and driving trust in the organisations we work for. Corporate communications and PR teams are in a position to steer business reputation at this time. What we must do is balance the brand narrative with the realities of the external world with sensitivity.

The one thing that will drive the future reputation of companies is how they have cared for and communicated with their employees during this time. Another key aspect will be how organisations have lived their purpose – or does it still remain words on a wall. Consistent, empathetic and authentic communications and storytelling will take the centre stage now.

And as media consumption changes, we will have to drive our stories differently. Virtual engagement (media conferences, town halls, videos) has already taken the centre stage as Skype and Zoom calls have become the new normal ways of working for all of us. From a CSR lens, we will now need to evaluate our commitments and redirect funding to the greatest need as a fallout of Covid. So, as I crystal gaze into the future and attempt an answer it’s clear that this is our time, this function and PR agencies need to play a pivotal role in driving brand reputation and building trust more than ever.

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