Fortune Favors the Bold

Our view of the world is shaped through how we experience it. In this blog, I am sharing my experience of having lived through three of the world’s recessions – a war in the Gulf, the financial crash in London and the current pandemic we’re living in. I’ll summarise key lessons for organisations and brands to use the disruption of a crisis to innovate, act decisively and show up differently to capture market share.

Lesson 1: A crisis is when we need to be closest to our customers

It was the evening of a day in September 2008. I was in my 3rd year at the London office of an Omnicom owned communications consultancy. Nomura had just announced its acquisition of Lehman Brothers. I had managed to get myself a meeting with the Nomura Board at 8 am the next morning to pitch for the M&A communications mandate. We didn’t win the business. It ended a long spree of new business conversions as the stock markets crashed and budgets vanished. The CEO of our European business decided to put me on a client that was being led out of the German office of our company. I was to support their business out of the UK. The client was Oracle. While most companies were slashing marketing budgets, Larry Elison, Oracle’s Founder and CEO decided to increase marketing spend by a factor of 10. “A crisis is when we need to be closest to our customers” – the message was loud and clear. Oracle was going to hit the market with everything they had. In the subsequent years, Oracle outperformed its nearest competitors many times over. As a communications team, we learnt the value of being bold in a crisis, surprising the market and building competitive advantage when others were still trying to find their feet.

Lesson 2: Pivot or perish

Prior to that, in 2003, the General Manager of the Kuwait unit of a global chain of hotels, sent me to Baghdad, in the middle of the second Gulf war on an assignment that was to open a whole new stream of business and revenue in industrial catering. With Saddam Hussein threatening to bomb Kuwait with chemical weapons, the city had holed up in bunkers and homes, preparing for the worst. After a few months, when the threat subsided, this General Manager came out and said, “We’re going to get people out of their homes again and in through our doors again.” We hired a bus with a loudspeaker and branded it with the hotel’s offers that was driven across the city’s neighbourhoods promoting the hotel’s safety, security and various leisure and entertainment options. The combination of new revenue streams in neighbouring Baghdad and the aggressive marketing and communications grew the business by 40% in the year of the war.

Lesson 3: Move forward, boldly

Returning back to the present, it’s been a treat to watch one of our clients take advantage of the evolving geo-political shifts in the international isolation of China and backward integrate its business from being an independent power producer to a manufacturer of solar power generation equipment in India. Its recent announcement to support the Prime Minister’s call for a more self-reliant and Atma Nirbhar Bharat with an investment of 2000 crore to create a domestic manufacturing unit and create 2000 direct jobs has raised eyebrows across the industry. No doubt, the communications team (our clients) have been working round the clock to prepare the organisation and communicate what this means for people both internally and externally. As their communications partners, we’ve had to rise to the challenge of supporting their momentum with front row seats to watch this sector’s transformation and growth.

Here are some key communication lessons for CxO’s

  • Never let a good crisis go to waste – A crisis is not the time to hunker down. Instead of waiting for things to return to normal, evolve through the disruption and be relevant to your customers.
  • In a crisis, first communicate internally with transparency and authenticity. Tell people what’s going on, communicate any hardships to build solidarity and then rally the teams to innovate out of it. Celebrate every small win.
  • Double the communications effort – now more than ever, communicate with stakeholders more aggressively to tell them what we’re planning to do, do what you said you’d do and close the loop by telling them what was just done.
  • Decide the action first and then the message and medium for communication – always, start with the action. Let the comms people figure out the message and the medium.
  • Communicating fast is more important than getting it perfect – in a crisis, it’s all about the speed of responding to stakeholder fears and concerns. And the message must come from the top.

Finally, don’t be afraid of communicating bad news. It makes the brand seem more human and vulnerable and everyone likes a good turn around story. Especially, if it’s an opportunity to remind people why you got into the business in the first place. Focus on the why.

Girish Balachandran is Managing Partner at ON PURPOSE, a creative communications consultancy founded to drive social change in India. Once a vaccine is found, he hopes to return to haggling with meat vendors in Nizamuddin.