Finding the right medium for the message

An image of Robyn Sefiani appearing alongside an interview in the AFR.

This article was published in the Australian Financial Review on 22 February 2021.

The scale of digital transformation following COVID-19 has been remarkable, with companies globally now three times more likely than before the pandemic to report at least 80 per cent of their customer interactions being digital.

As brands race to reach online audiences, experts say the most effective communication in this dynamic environment combines creativity with authenticity and accessibility.

“In just a few months’ time, the COVID-19 crisis has brought about years of change in the way companies in all sectors and regions do business,” notes McKinsey & Company’s global survey of executives. “The survey results confirm the rapid shift toward interacting with customers through digital channels. They also show that rates of adoption are years ahead of where they were when previous surveys were conducted.”

But just as more people consume content online than ever before, it is also becoming clear that savvy audiences will reject brands that use social media as a dumping ground for boring content.

Leading brands are giving a lot of thought to making their digital experience more exciting, thought-provoking and even a little controversial.

When American politician Bernie Sanders went viral online for his idiosyncratic seating style at January’s US presidential inauguration, IKEA was quick to tap into the moment by positioning the chair he was sitting on as an IKEA product, creating a ‘‘get the look’’ advertisement highlighting similar products.

“It’s a great example of a brand seizing the moment,” says Robyn Sefiani, CEO and reputation counsel at communications firm Sefiani. “It was entertaining, engaging and, above all, fun. We need some fun in challenging times and brands that can show humour – if it suits their brand proposition – can use the spontaneity of social and digital channels to great advantage.”

As well as accelerating digital transformation, the pandemic has led organisations to rethink their purpose. KPMG’s most recent global CEO outlook reveals 79 per cent of surveyed CEOs feel a stronger emotional connection to purpose since the pandemic began. The same number say they have re-evaluated their organisation’s purpose to better address stakeholder needs.

“This increasingly personal and emotional connection to purpose during the pandemic shows that CEOs face the same health and family challenges as their people and communities when it comes to COVID-19,” the report notes. “Today, purpose helps CEOs understand what is necessary to meet the needs of employees, communities and other stakeholders.”

Meanwhile, the rise of working from home and video conferencing has shifted the context in which leaders communicate with employees, Sefiani says.

“One of the big changes I’ve seen is how CEOs have communicated on cloud and digital platforms much more easily and authentically than previous modes of communication were allowing. Employees are now seeing them in their homes or their study with the dogs and kids … in a more relaxed, relatable environment.”

Corporate brands and reputations are now judged as much by what they say as what they do, and being clear about purpose is crucial for a successful communications strategy, Sefiani adds. That and embracing digital channels, whether through using LinkedIn for networking and brand storytelling, or running thought leadership conferences via Zoom.

“Good communication is vital to brand and reputation health; ignore it at your peril. Embracing all the channels of communication for your internal and external stakeholders in an integrated, powerful way enhances brand visibility and vitality.’’

7 communications tips from Sefiani for 2021

  1. Be clear about the story you want your organisation to tell, where you can demonstrate thought leadership and what you want audiences to see, feel, think and do.
  2. Be deliberate and consistent with your communications. Don’t wait until something “hits the fan” before you start telling your story. Take control and tell it your way, regularly, through a proactive, integrated communications strategy.
  3. Be honest, genuine and brave (in a considered way) to provide a real flavour of who you are and what you do. People want the authentic behind-the-scenes story, not manicured company announcements. The brands that do this well will be the winners this year.
  4. Tell your story with purpose and transparency and ensure actions reflect your words. Be a purposeful organisation, not a pretender.
  5. Become your own media channel to not only tell your story but also manage conversations and grow trust and reputation. It is important to build up goodwill in your communications bank about your business – including searchable material – so that when something does happen, you have a body of content that people and media can use immediately. In effect, it becomes your first response “armour.”
  6. Ensure your marketing and digital plans feed into your communications plan and are working together towards a common purpose. In many organisations there are silos and too many “random acts of content” diluting your central message.
  7. Stop talking “at” audiences and feeding social channels “junk food.” Listen and talk, use available data to understand what they want and deliver to that consistently and authentically.