Getting Business Back Series: Russ Brady, Head of PR, Co-op

Hanson Search talks to Russ Brady, Head of PR, Co-operative Group 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 Russ Brady, Head of PR for The Co-operative Group. 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? 

The impact has been profound. We operate in so many areas; we are obviously a large food business but we are also the UK's largest funeral director and legal services provider, as well as a major insurer and a growing health operation. If you think about the challenges that COVID has presented, not only for consumers but also for businesses, the impact has been significant but I think we've done a sterling job of delivering for our customers and members throughout this time.

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? 

First, as an organisation, we are so much tighter operationally and I think that's enabled us to move really quickly in responding to the significant changes. If you think about our food business and funeral practice in particular, they had to implement new ways of working overnight. And our ability to respond to that in the way we have done has enabled us to feed and care for the nation at a time when they've needed it the most.

We do have great people, but I think that the ability for us to have a business response team which works closely with all those enabling areas, including operations, meant that we could quickly respond to the new way of working and it was done pretty seamlessly.

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

The key thing for me is that we rightly set ourselves a higher bar. That's not set by ourselves; it's set by our members and by the principles that the Rochdale pioneers put in place for the Co-op back in 1844. You have to live those values out, and I think the two that have come out here the most have been our ethical values around caring and social responsibility. Looking at the care side, there was a lot of investment put into supporting our colleagues through the early days of the crisis, especially those on the front line. We obviously provided clear guidance and instruction, but it went beyond that. There was a lot of thought given to the wellbeing of colleagues and listening to what they had to say and being able to respond to them.

That then extended out to our care for our members and the communities in which they operate. This crisis has had a major impact on our communities and I'm proud that we've been able to establish a series of support frameworks and funding for communities and it's been done in keeping with the Co-op values.

We got ourselves into a good place to deliver on the basics - feeding, caring, and maintaining legal services for the nation - but we went beyond that in terms of demonstrating that we are a business that puts people before profit.

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? 

My responsibility in the Co-op is predominantly on the external comms side, but I work closely with my colleague who heads up the internal comms team because obviously the messaging of the brand has to be aligned. Our internal comms guys have done an amazing job. They have provided clear guidance when guidance was needed, but they've also used emerging technologies that are now in place to allow good levels of two-way engagement to take place, especially with colleagues. That's been really important for our internal relationships and engagement.

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

For me, this comes back to listening and genuinely having your ears open. In my department, for instance, I have colleagues who've really embraced and enjoyed remote working. We have the technology in place to enable that interaction to take place and we've been doing regular check-ins with teams which helps to keep that physicality albeit in a virtual way. Some of the feedback we've had across the business is that some people feel more connected to the business than they ever have before.

However, you have to recognise that some individuals for a variety of reasons have faced more difficulties. They may have had family members shielding or had additional responsibilities like childcare. It's really important to be cognisant that situations will affect people differently and build a communications team that is capable of absorbing that. We want to get the best out of people so we have to put the best into them and that includes a good work-life balance. That will hopefully be a mantra that can continue to grow.

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

For a communications practitioner at any level, any significant event that occurs presents challenges, but ultimately it also presents opportunities. If I look back six/seven years to the crisis we had in the Co-op, I wasn't prepared for that, but it enabled me to genuinely see what I could offer and how I could strengthen the Co-op's reputation management framework. I went back over that forensically to work out how I could tighten relationships - with the risk areas and operational areas - and then started to build a framework around how I could create, promote and enhance the reputation of the Co-op.

There isn't going to be any business out there that hasn't been impacted by COVID. I think for practitioners coming out of this crisis, they will also have the opportunity to see where they can add value.

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

Over the last five years, one thing the Co-op has done really well is present a compelling case as to why we are a great business, how we add value and what that means for our stakeholders, and the impact that we have on society more broadly. We've done that via evidence-based interventions and communications. When we or our CEO goes out and talks, he does so in a compelling way because there's been a lot of insight and evidence that's gone into that message or presentation.

I would suggest that most businesses, they centre around a vision and strategy, which doesn't tend to change significantly. I think the challenge or mistake that some businesses make after a crisis is that they feel the need to tip the baby out with the bathwater and I don't think that's the case. You just need to take a long, hard, objective look at your business and you'll find that there are some inherent strengths in place. Don't lose sight of those. It's about building on those strengths as opposed to reinventing the wheel.

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Author: Alice Weightman

As Founder and CEO, Alice established Hanson Search in 2002 and has since gained a reputation as one of the leading search professionals in senior appointments across communications, developing an incredible network globally.

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