On World Health Day, as the world struggles to stay healthy, we decided to host an online get together under the ‘Creative Sandbox’ banner. The idea was simple. Bring a small group of healthcare communications professionals together to share their learnings on what it takes to communicate effectively amid the Covid-19 pandemic. What were the creative ways in which communication was helping business navigate through these testing times? Here are the conclusions. 

Engage. Protect. Inspire — three words that are at the center of creative and effective Covid communication. These three words should be at the heart of any communication effort during this pandemic. Culture is going to define the winners and losers as we start down the road to recovery. Communication plays a central role in ensuring that an organization strengthens and builds its character in challenging times and it does that by driving a communications agenda that strengthens the roots of company culture.

As business leaders fine tune their strategies and plans on how to navigate the road ahead, they will need their teams to rally behind these plans. The companies that carry their people with them by engaging meaningfully, protecting and inspiring their teams and by extension their customers and other stakeholders, will stand tall. Others will struggle to execute. They may have good plans, but the people will not rally behind those plans, if they don’t understand them and believe in them. This is the crucial role that communicators can play right now, by ensuring that there is ‘one voice’ that is aligned behind a clear purpose, for both internal and external communications.

Engage: Does my employee engagement activity find itself centered around the stated values of the organization? Is it aligned with our mission and vision? As I expand the circle of communication beyond my people do we keep the ‘one voice’ aligned?

Protect: Has the organization taken swift, decisive action to ensure its employees are protected? Has there been regular and sustained communication around all the steps being taken to keep people safe?

Inspire: What new products and services are being incubated or brought alive? Are there any new partnerships or collaborations that have been created to combat this situation and serve the greater good? Is there a communications campaign that is shining the spotlight on this good work, so as to inspire others to join in and put their shoulder to the wheel?

Some insightful examples of how this is being put into practice were shared during the session.

Sushmita Bandopadhyay, communications leader at BD for India / South Asia, agreeing with this approach and the importance of speaking in one voice said: “At BD, culture is integral to communications and when it comes to internal communication or employee engagement, values form the bedrock. It sets the tone at the leadership level and even at the last mile we are seeing that the same message is communicated. Collaboration and culture will really play a central role in how we combat this.” 

She also shared an example of how they are using employee stories to engage and inspire.

“We are seeing a lot of authentic stories coming out at this time. We are going way beyond our line of job to help each other. It gives us goose bumps that we were able to help. It’s time to really show that spirit of collaboration and humanity and help each other. Values are absolutely essential to make each employee proud. It’s a great starting point to anchor any communication effort." 

Talking about how these stories were being socialised she added: "We are using Yammer very effectively right now. The stories also get shared in a global newsletter which is a weekly publication."

Sarita Bahl, country group head for communications and public affairs at Bayer India also shared details of how a new breed of leaders are emerging on the frontline of this battle. “This is a continuous work in progress. I have seen the rise of multiple new leaders who have taken accountability. They are not in the leadership team, but they have become leaders for us."

She also agreed with the need for communications to be the driver of culture. "There has never been a time more pronounced than now to link a company’s purpose with how we deal with this crisis. As a life science company, Bayer’s purpose is  'science for a better life'."

“We have to maintain business continuity to ensure medicines are available and people have food on the table. We are placed in a unique situation where we have to balance safety of our employees, their concerns, if not theirs then their family members. At the same time, we have to fulfil our purpose."

An example of the 'protect' and 'inspire' aspects from Bahl are illustrated by this comment; "Safety of our employees is our number one priority. We have put in place all protocols for our people at sites. At the second level we are working with the government to ensure minimum operations continue. Motivating and inspiring our employees is very critical. We are also taking stories from everywhere and sharing on Microsoft teams, Facebook and WhatsApp and running a campaign “#BayerHeroes."

Talking about engaging team members she cited the example of new team members being inducted remotely. “At our shared service centre at Bangalore, new people have joined remotely. Inductions and trainings are happening online. Backend tech support and a solution oriented approach has made it possible.”

Ajey Maharaj, head of corporate communications at Fortis Healthcare, elaborated on the role communication played in ensuring that protection was at the forefront of all communication efforts for the hospital staff and patients.

He shared an example of messaging developed for the leadership team that explained all the steps being taken by the hospital and then explored how this message was cascaded across levels. He also talked about the importance of mental health and the role of communication in promoting the Fortis stress helpline.

Discussing role of digitisation in this arena he said “We have started teleconsulting and video consulting across all locations. Using digital platforms and applications is important for us to provide continuous care and safety.” Maharaj also shared another example of innovation when he talked about the launch of a new IT helpdesk app to enable touch free tech support.

Wrapping up the session, the question on everyone’s mind was, 'what will day one and beyond look like?' It is something that all participants in the creative sandbox session said they were working on in terms of scenario planning and gearing up to communicate to multiple stakeholders. The voluntary return to work and employee safety being the key themes to focus on in the immediate future. Partnerships and collaboration with others to serve communities is another area that all the participants felt was a powerful way forward.

In conclusion, I asked each of them to share something that was creative or positive in the midst of all these challenges.

“Leadership sharing fitness tips was a lot of fun,” said Bahl, adding that it helped to bring people together, motivate and inspire them, which is a key communications objective.

Bandopadhyay recounted how she had asked her leader to post a photograph on Yammer of him washing dishes in his kitchen. She was happy because "it has helped employees shed their inhibitions and they are all having fun posting pictures now."

And Maharaj explained that, given the fact that his colleagues were at the frontline of this battle, sharing positive patient stories to give the right information to people is a way of bringing positivity.

Apart from helping us learn from each other,  the session, was also a moment of time when we felt connected, comforted and filled with resolve to fight the good fight. Communications builds culture. Culture will help beat Covid.

Nikhil Dey is vice-chair of Weber Shandwick India.