Hanson Search talks to Simon Whitehead, CEO UK, H+K Strategies on the impact of Covid-19

Welcome to our ‘Getting Business Back’ series where we are talking to industry leaders from agency and inhouse backgrounds about the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses and the steps they are taking as we move out of the crisis.

Here, we sat down (virtually) with Simon Whitehead, CEO UK at Hill+Knowlton Strategies. Read on for his thoughts about the impact of COVID-19 and the transformations that he’s seen take place as a result of the pandemic.

What impact has COVID-19 had on your business and on your sector as a whole? 

It's clearly had a significant impact on the business and the sector. Some will try to say, 'no, it hasn't had an impact', but of course it has. When we first faced lockdown and moved to remote working, it was a difficult and somewhat chaotic time for everybody.

From a business point of view, we immediately saw in-house teams pause and try to assess what was going on. It was clear that there were going to be postponements to campaigns. If you look at our business – which is 300 people across ten sectors – different sectors were impacted in different ways. Clearly our retail, hotels, aviation, leisure, and sports businesses were impacted quite hard. And for many of those businesses, it wasn't just postponement but a hiatus in the workflow. For the industry at large, results are going to be down because of that.

But we also saw a lot of clients who changed course and came to us for help on crisis management instead of on their existing plans. So, a lot of the budget was repurposed pretty quickly. That is the beauty of PR; our sector is agile and adaptable and frankly that our business is crucial to manage risk at a moment of change and crisis.

Of course, the other impact has been on people. I was amazed at how quickly our staff shifted to remote working. We worked very hard on how to properly equip people to be able to work from home. There was an investment in some IT that was necessary. People have been very resilient and remained productive throughout. That's been extraordinary.

Technology has also been the winner in all of this. The situation forced us to learn how to do things, like video meetings as we're doing now. We can do things much more quickly. Of course, that's going to beg big questions around the future of working, office space, travel, and how can we use technology well. The PR industry is showing that it can use tech well, survive, and be productive, so I think there will be a very interesting blend in the future.

Now the question is how do we get back? How do we do that, how quickly, and what do we all want from it? 

As a result of COVID-19, organisations have had to move faster than ever before to problem solve and navigate the crisis. How has this pushed your organisation and industry forward positively and which of those measures taken would you like to remain in place post pandemic? 

We've seen an acceleration in digital in PR. And while face to face events have clearly struggled, people have adapted to make sure we can now manage many aspects of events virtually. We are getting more sophisticated at knowing how to launch things digitally. I think that's a very positive development. Once we get back, we need to work out a hybrid model, a live-cum-digital environment. That's going to be where PR heads in the coming months and years and it's very exciting.

Flexible working has shown itself to be real rather than something we all just talk about. Of course, it hasn't worked for everybody or every situation, but there are now going to be some interesting debates about how flexible working will work, what are the new policies, and what organisations will offer to staff. And it is an offer. It's about how we motivate staff to stay at H+K and what policies we need to adopt to keep our business lean, profitable and productive whilst at the same time attracting people who want more flexibility in their lives. It's going to be fascinating to see how that develops over the next 12-18 months.

PR is also now seen as a more fundamental part of the marketing mix. While spend is going to be an interesting issue through an economic recession, the value of the spend and the ROI is strong in PR. As an industry, we need to step up and blow our trumpet about that. In-house, the experience of Covid has given people more evidence and the ability to talk cogently about how PR can help businesses develop.

Which of your values/your company’s values have truly come to life since the beginning of this crisis? 

When I came in as CEO, I was focused on three core values: collaboration, equality, and commitment. If you look at what has happened through the pandemic, it's really brought out all of those in spades. As for collaboration, I've seen teams pull together in ways I never thought possible. I've seen teams working with clients much more closely than I ever thought would happen. And I've seen, in most cases, people looking after each other.

Looking at equality, when I first came in as CEO, the meeting where I saw the greatest passion was around our EquAll platform, which is our platform around culture, diversity, and inclusion; equality in the workplace. Of course, we've seen the anti-racism issue flair up recently in the US and the UK through the pandemic and I've been impressed at the passion and focus on trying to make our company and business/society generally more inclusive and diverse.

Our industry needs to change and I'm glad to see the CIPR and PRCA and other bodies coming forward with interesting action plans and diversity/inclusion boards to push this forward. I'm very aware that as a white, middle-aged man, I need to be a strong ally to this effort and a facilitator of change. It's what I can do. Grand slogans are for the birds; we need a programme now of change and action and we, as an industry, have a short period of time to get our act together around this.

In terms of commitment, wow, people have been committed. They've been resilient and highly committed teams, doing the best for clients. We've seen all the values that I really respect and follow shown in spades in our workforce. We won't sit on our laurels on that but it's been impressive.

Internal communications  has never been more business critical. How has your business engaged with its employees and what changes in culture has it resulted in? 

We realised early on that we could lose people remotely and we really didn't want to do that. People were under significant pressure. They were very worried; it was a nerve-wracking time. I hope we don't go back to that if there is a second wave or another lockdown.

My feeling was that we needed to over-communicate and be exceptionally regular in our communications. This was important at a team-level, just to look out for each other and make sure that people were fine. I've also been emailing teams and staff regularly; we've had Teams calls throughout lockdown and the summer. We've tried to bring in new ways of communicating and keep people fresh and that's been a tough thing to do.

I've seen immense advantage in being open and transparent with everyone - about the results, good or bad; about sickness in the firm; about the office; about how I feel about things. You've got to show through your communications that even if you don't know or don't have an answer, you're trying to work out what's best for staff, clients, and the organisation. Just being truthful and having respect for the environment has been the way to communicate. I think that's brought people together, to a degree, and had a good effect.

Some people have struggled, but we've tried to be as sympathetic as we can to people's situations. That's how you build culture. Yes, we've lost a little of the face to face culture, but overall we've kept people going.

As time has gone on, it's inevitable in a business of 300 people that you're going to see some fragmentation. There are some people in the organisation who I haven't seen on a Teams call for a little while now and I’d like to. The notion of being in an office and having those 30-second bump-ins, quickly saying hello to someone; we are social creatures, we want that. That's what we have to look at now - how do we get back?

I don't think sitting it out and being remote is what everybody needs. Some want to and some need to shield, that's fine. On the whole, most want to get back. It's figuring out how we do that in a sensible and safe way.

What challenges  have you faced leading people remotely and how have you had to adapt your style? 

I've found not being able to do face to face in person to be a challenge. I'm better in person; when I can talk directly to people. That's been the real issue, particularly when people are worried - about the virus, but also about their jobs and future. Working out how people are feeling on a video call is really hard. I think all managers in my business have found that hard. Being sensitive, calm, and consistent is important.

And then, how do you keep people fresh? We've found having people back-to-back on calls to be a problem. At the start of the summer, we were really trying to get people to take a holiday, take a break, because they were working really hard. We actually gave some extra holiday to people over the summer. It's been very welcomed and the right thing to do.

We've also been trying out some new things, like getting people to stop taking meetings on a Wednesday afternoon. That way the time is completely free; to free your mind creatively and not worry about having to be on a call.

Finally, even in the chaos, people need clear direction. They need to know what has to be done and they need people at the top of the organisation to say, 'It will be okay and here's why... this is our vision and strategy'. You need to look ahead, but not be sucked into disaster-scenario planning. What can you get done today? Focus on the key tasks.

Are there any businesses you feel have communicated particularly well (or not) well during the crisis?

Very early on in the crisis, the CEO of Marriott Hotels came out with a video for his staff that was so detailed, reassuring, and emotional. I thought, 'Yes, that's how you begin to communicate in this environment'. It's about transparency and detail and reassurance. He didn't hide anything; he didn't say it was great. He said it was bad, but he said what he was going to do and I loved that.

I thought Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, when he regrettably laid off a lot of people, he did so in an extraordinarily open and sympathetic way. He didn't hide anything. He tried his best to look after the staff and I thought that was a really strong piece around redundancy and rebalancing business; he did that really well.

Then if you look beyond business at politics, Jacinda Arden, the PM of New Zealand, has had an exceptional crisis. She's facing some troubling times at the moment with the virus on the rise, but she showed how you empathise with people. She was electrifying in the way that she did that. You have to respect everything she did throughout the crisis. Then you look at our country and the desperate situation we've been in, in many ways, and the person who's really caught my eye is Keir Starmer, the new Labour leader. Nothing over the top, but siding with the government when he needed to and being supportive when he needed to, and showing a real eye for the right argument, the detail and competence. That's what leadership is about and I think he's been amazing throughout the crisis.

As companies move from reacting to mitigating the impact of the outbreak, what is your strategy to move forward over the coming months? 

The key strategy is to lead people back to the office. It's about finding the right hybrid model with flexible working policies and doing that safely. At the moment, we have a maximum of 20% staff coming back to the office. We're going to try to increase that to 30-40%. Then we'll need to see where we go and what our clients want.

There are two main considerations: how do we look after our employees and make sure they are safe, comfortable, and ready to do great work; and then what do our clients want from us and how are they looking at the world and business and 2021? Like every agency or consultancy, they'll be thinking about who's had a good crisis and is our agency/partner ready to support us. That's the other thrust of our strategy - it's about clients and how we look after them.

You have to look after your people and your clients. If you get that right, then the rest seems to fall into place.

What do you feel are the major communications challenges once the recovery begins? 

This is a really difficult question; none of us fully know. If you look ahead at what's coming, which is likely an economic recession and complete readjustment of everybody's life, to plan communications strategies around that is going to be a difficult set of tasks. Judging tone and the timing of communications is going to be a massive challenge. I think PR is nimble enough to manoeuvre and flex around that in a way that some other marketing disciplines simply can't.

How are people feeling, what do they want, what comms strategies are going to make a difference, how do you launch a new campaign in that environment - virtually and live, and frankly how does PR help the economy get moving again? The big challenge is one of confidence. How do we get people to step out of their houses, out of this quite comfortable place that they've gone into and face the world again with confidence, safely?

That is a significant communications challenge - right from the team you're in, to the business you're in, to the economy you're in, to the country you're in. I'm optimistic for the future of our industry and I think it's a great moment for PR despite it being a tragic time. PR should be optimistically looking ahead at this challenge and see it as an opportunity. 

Posted on 08.09.2020

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