Opinion: A paradigm shift in communications amidst COVID-19

As the world continues to remain under the lockdown, it is extremely encouraging, and inspiring, to witness how the best brains and hearts from around the world, and across all levels - be it heads of state, leading economists and scientists, corporate leaders to driven individuals, caring communities and brave frontliners are coming together to take on the common enemy. Never before has the world witnessed an unequivocal and univocal support to a collaboration, such as the WEF COVID Global Taskforce, or following the lead of WHO. Surreal almost like a Hollywood movie plot, but thankfully it is for real.

Closer to home, here in Malaysia we have seen how the rules of engagement in collaboration and communication are changing for the power of good; for the public good and dare I hope, for good too. As not only the government, and government-linked institutions, but the private sector: big and small businesses as well as incredible individuals and communities, have been stepping up to show support and solidarity to combat this existential crisis.

In this fight to #flattenthecurve and #breakthechain, it is uplifting to also witness how these government agencies and organisations are walking the talk on their respective brand purpose, and levelling up to really tapping into their true higher purpose. From helping to raise funds and war chests to arrange for PPE and ventilators, medical and non-medical supplies, to acting responsibly in taking care of their respective front liners and ensuring minimum disruptions in services to their customers and the supply chain, most businesses have “stress tested” their resilience in the last four weeks; and will continue to do so in the forthcoming months.

Truly it is an unprecedented time - that communication enthusiasts, like me, have already started to see a pivot; perhaps a paradigm shift in our field of communication and engagement as we know it.

The tone, manner and medium to communicate have been stripped bare to words, images and channels that give the greatest reach, impact and meaning, keeping it real and authentic.

The use of laymen terms, infographics, short and long videos, life examples - all packaged in small bites that can easily and even virally be shared across social media messaging platforms. The umbrella messages stay the same: Stay Home, Stay Connected, Stay Safe, Stay Healthy, Stay Strong.

A hypothesis that I found got further confirmed while sifting through special reports on COVID-19:

1. Majority of citizens (83%) believe that brands have the power to bring people together and stay emotionally close during these testing times, according to Edelman's Brand Trust and COVID special report;

2. Nielsen's global COVID report said the rise of homebound economy and tech adoption will drive business sustainability across industries, as people would want to connect on the promise of quality and efficacy; 

3. Consumers want brands to actively play a positive role during this crisis situation – Help find the new normal for people to be resourceful, create spaces, and give consumers ideas and inspirations to stay connected in new formats and ways. This was according to Kantar's report titled "Communicating at the time of COVID-19".

All this and more pointing to a future forward tomorrow that has arrived expeditiously today, where technology leads the way on how closely we collaborate, innovate and co-create. For me one of the most wonderful things to see is that whilst we as consumers, look to our own needs, we are also giving back to society and those most marginalised in these challenging times by supporting small mom-pop businesses that have no online presence and feeding those in need or have no access to everyday requirements. All whilst staying and working from home for the most part.

No matter, as our favourite artists, musicians, fashionistas, cooks and fitness experts have been beaming live into our living rooms, home studies or special corners in our houses. That makes living in a digitally-enabled nation even more so relevant now, as both life and businesses can collaborate and innovate, pushing the envelope on things we otherwise would take for granted.

Going back to the topic of how communication around brands and businesses will undergo changes, in my view the following are possible – let’s make it 10:

1. Brand purpose must rise up to its higher purpose. Community well-being before individual or corporation should take precedence;

2. Brands both small and big will start putting purpose led actions as their core go-to-market strategies;

3. Corporate leadership will start to weigh in on bigger societal changes beyond their business ecosystem;

4. Engaging employees and workplace well-being will become a core priority for leadership teams;

5. The lines between brand speak and consumer speak will start to blur, and the use of multiple mediums and creative bite-sized communication will continue to rise;

6. The rise of local brands will bring back state, city, and national pride as part of national movement; 

7. CSR and corporate communication functions will assume even more enhanced roles in overall corporate business strategy;

8. Collaborations not just public-private, but within big and small entities to solve common goals will emerge as a popular culture; 

9. The rise of subject matter experts and real life Influencers would make the brands rethink their social/digital strategies;

10. Reliance on real time analytics and sentiment scores will increasingly become a key decider in content creation and digital delivery strategies

These observations will continue to evolve. Who knows what the coming months will bring, but despite the uncertainties, fears and challenges of these times, I am filled with a sense of gratitude for the good happening around us and would especially like to pay tribute to all our incredible frontliners for continuing to keep us safe. Let us all continue to do our part, stay home, practice social distancing, personal hygiene and civic responsibility. Look after each other as I have seen us do so beautifully, the world over, in these last few months and because of it, am hopeful for the future ahead of us.

The writer is Izlyn Ramli, VP, group brand and communication, Telekom Malaysia.