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How COVID is teaching us to be better communicators

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Spokesperson: Olga Arara-Kimani, Regional Head of Corporate Affairs, Brand & Marketing, Standard Chartered AME

After years of having served as a senior communications practitioner, I’ve learned that the most important attribute of any effective communicator is being able to look at yourself – your people and brands – through the lens of your most important stakeholders.

When we do that we can ask ourselves: what do I need to be doing to instil trust, to inspire, to energise, or to re-assure? Communications is essential to doing all of these things –more so during times of uncertainty.

Amid the current pandemic, communicators need to intimately understand how perceptions and expectations of their organisations and brands have changed – accelerated by fear, anxiety, changing priorities, and all the uncertainty that comes with physical distancing and a future that for many is on hold or ill-defined.

Through our own experience at Standard Chartered and by watching how other organisations have navigated the pandemic, we believe the current crisis is heralding a new era of communications underpinned by an even more relentless focus on the alignment between the needs and interests of our clients, and our own interests.

But more than simply re-aligning what we do and what we say, we need to adjust the lens through which we think about communications – and re-think what makes us relevant in these uncertain times. This means being more sensitive – to clients, partners and employees – more transparent in communicating why we’re doing what we’re doing, being more authentic and human in how we talk to our stakeholders, engaging in the difficult conversations, and being more agile.  

Communications as a lasting facilitator of trust

Communicators and marketers serve as the main driver of a corporation’s messaging and play an instrumental role in fortifying existing and potential brand-client relationships. This role was further amplified amid growing concerns surrounding the pandemic as consumers attempted to navigate a ‘new normal’.  The pandemic beckoned a fundamental shift in the way brands communicated with consumers, wherein an emphasis was placed on establishing and maintaining trust in brands and what they stand for.

At Standard Chartered, we’ve adapted to the ‘new normal’ by inviting clients, many who are deeply concerned about their finances and their ability to manage them through the pandemic, to take advantage of our wide array of digital services and have marketed these as an efficient method for consumers to conduct their day-to-day banking needs. At the same time, we’re continuing to share regular updates on the status of our operations across our various markets, including our call centre hours, branch closures and our timely transition back to the office.

During the pandemic, we have seen the digital adoption rate for mobile fixed income products has increased dramatically since the we introduced wealth management solutions on our digital bank platforms this year. In Africa alone, the average growth rate was 43 percent in April. The diversification of digital product offerings in investments has given clients the option to choose where to invest based on market volatility during the COVID-19 situation. However, customers still care for an experienced professional who will translate and explain the strategies proposed by the systems, while offering support in the decision-making process.

Without the luxury of face-to-face meetings, Standard Chartered has conducted 30 webinars reaching over 17,500 wealth management clients in AME during COVID-19. The webinars were conducted by the Bank’s economists and investments specialists since April 2020 to keep clients abreast of market developments and investment strategies without the need to meet face to face.

Similarly, we’ve shifted our focus to deliver our suite of external engagement activities through digital platforms. Across our various markets in the Africa and Middle East (AME) region, we’ve hosted virtual roundtables and panel discussions that engage our full range of clientele and facilitate interactions between our industry experts and consumer base.

Shift in internal efforts

This shift in our external strategy was also mirrored in our internal communications efforts, as during uncertain times employees will rightfully look for guidance, re-assurance and information from senior leadership on ongoing developments.

Ensuring that employees receive valuable information while mitigating against panic and misconception across the wider corporation is absolutely essential. Leaders that practice frequent and transparent communications with employees, through words of encouragement and reassurance, are able to instil faith and provide comfort under unclear conditions.

At the bank, we’ve adopted a communications strategy that facilitates robust two-way engagement between employees and the wider team, during a time where a staggering 90 percent of our personnel were working remotely. We’ve been able to share important messages through digital channels and mobile applications, such as WhatsApp and SMS, while organising internal sessions that congregate the wider corporation through accessible platforms, such as Blue Jeans, where we hosted a regional Town hall with over 3,000 participants across Africa and the Middle East.

We’ve also prioritised the creation and dissemination of content that’s of interest, while conforming to physical barriers imposed by the pandemic, to ensure our employees are continuously engaged with the bank’s ongoing activities. In turn, the bank was able to connect thousands of employees through content that drives our key messaging, further inciting confidence in our wider strategy.   

Future of communications is underlined by the COVID era

Moving forward, brands will be obliged to navigate a post-COVID consumer-brand dynamic that is underpinned by an emphasis on greater credibility and awareness. The pandemic has uncovered a series of consumer-driven considerations that will undoubtedly decipher how brands communicate with their consumers hereafter.

It’s becoming increasingly evident, for example, that consumers are looking to engage with brands that move beyond virtue-signalling and take meaningful action in support of the communities in which they operate.  Studies have shown that consumers across the globe are responding increasingly well to acts of kindness and generosity undertaken by their brands of choice, which directly translates to increased engagement.  According to a recent survey, over 40 percent of millennial participants believe brands play an important role at this time. What’s more, one in four millennials surveyed believe brands may be as impactful in addressing societal needs as the government.[1]

This is equally true for the approach a brand takes to its communications, wherein these acts of kindness and genuine community support must be shared in a manner that is sensitive, yet impactful. The current crisis has further accelerated the need for corporations to evaluate which messages continue to bolster their value propositions, and which messages impede their ability to practice impactful communications with consumers.

The unprecedented challenges incited by the pandemic have placed corporations under a microscope, wherein their communicative efforts and ability to support consumers is heavily scrutinised. Open and continuous communication is more important than ever, not only for our customers, but for employees, too.

Never has communication had a more important role within businesses than today.


[1] https://berlincameron.com/newevent-all/2020/4/1/millennials-want-brands-to-communicate-more-during-covid-19-crisis-study-finds


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