Twenty years ago, I was packing for England to begin a study abroad semester in Nottingham. This formative period exploring castles, village pubs and rock-walled rolling landscapes began my love affair with British television and film. The latest season of “The Crown” is no exception.
In the midst of one episode, my husband Andrew pointed to the screen and asked, “Is any of this really necessary?” By this, I knew he meant the hallmarks of a monarchy: the pomp and circumstance, the formality that separates them from the rest of society.
In Peter Morgan’s other famous look at the royals, “The Queen,” Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth comes to terms with the British people’s crushing grief in reaction to Princess Diana’s death: “Something’s happened. There’s been a change. Some… shift in values.”
Morgan’s Queen Elizabeth was right. Crises dial up the essential human needs to be heard, seen and reassured.
In 2020, across the pond here in the United States, people needed to be heard, seen and reassured through crises including the pandemic, social unrest due to racial injustices, and a tense and volatile election year.
Responding to these needs has caused companies and organizations to take a more genuine and empathetic approach to their communications and work styles. The result: a new definition of professionalism.
One extension of the pandemic crisis that every business, university, school and nonprofit grappled with was a rapid pivot to what Jeff Teper, the head of Microsoft Teams, SharePoint and OneDrive calls “remote everything.” This work-from-home revolution has given way to another revolution in corporate and organizational communications: “informal everything.”
Redefining professionalism has been a healthy response to the tragedies we’ve faced this year. Our shared experiences deflated traditionally held beliefs that informality and productivity are mutually exclusive. In some ways, it has proven the inverse: getting real with our colleagues, with our customers and with our community has drawn us closer together. It’s given us the why for working harder, working smarter and delivering more value to those we serve.
As we close the calendar on this year, by all accounts, casual communications are here to stay and organizations should think strategically about how to approach, plan and execute at the right level in 2021.
Keep it real.
For those fortunate to work remotely, the grand experiment of working from home, helping kids through distance learning and serving as caretaker for sick loved ones has leveled the playing field. The flexibility required for teams to go instantly remote and, in many places across the country, work in quarantine, helped erase bureaucratic barriers separating executive and employee, pundit and audience, administration and faculty, professor and student.
This common denominator has helped us see each other in a new way — delivering keynote addresses from cleverly lit kitchen tables as screaming children tear through the background. Remember the BBC dad? His viral moment isn’t a thing anymore; it’s the stuff every working day is made of.
Intimacy and authenticity are also strengthening our connections to one another. Leaders need to remember this, especially as we find our new normal in the coming year.
“In times of crisis, in great change, you have to focus on authenticity,” said Derek Pando, Zoom Video Communications head of international and partner marketing. “There’s a lot of me-too marketing that happens in difficult times. People try to jump on to the bandwagon. Participating in broader trends is totally OK, but you need to do [it] your way, which is [being] true to yourself, relevant and [providing] something different and unique. Otherwise, it’s going to fall flat and be boring.”
Remember your people.
One of the biggest lessons of this year is that people matter — their health, safety and dignity. The people who work for you and buy your products or services are the key to your success. Keep their needs front and center.
Do your customers need to be entertained or educated, fed or fueled, healed or protected? Do your employees need to be trusted and empowered, granted resources or nudged toward excellence? To find out, internal communicators should become reporters within their organizations. Ask to sit in on Employee Resource Groups or new employee trainings and listen for story ideas.
Partner with your HR team to conduct pulse surveys that reveal points of pride and areas of concern that communications can help address. If you work in external communications, show similar curiosity in understanding your customers.
Maybe you’ve never met with your analyst relations or industry relations teams. Now is a great time to get your hands dirty with customer profiles so that your quest for authentic communications hits the mark.
When values shift, in society and in organizations, it is a leader’s job to put her finger on it and it is a communicator’s job to help her articulate the change in a way that is true and people-centric. The lasting impacts of this wild and painful year are still to be determined.
But, as professional communicators, 2020 gave us a gift that we can carry well into 2021: the freedom to throw off the grandeur and be real. Keep calm and communicate on!
Tia Over is partner at The Mathews Group, advising Fortune 50 clients, higher ed and nonprofits on communications strategy. She lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband, two children and a stubborn Shiba Inu. Find Tia on Twitter and LinkedIn.
[Photo credit: pathé distribution]