COVID-19 Strategic Storytelling Playbook

Changing the Narrative from Crisis to Hope

Organizations need to shift the tone of their leadership to help their audiences and stakeholders move to the post-COVID world. Here’s some ideas how.

A New Approach to Communications Strategy for Perpetual Uncertainty & Change

Though the public health response to COVID-19 has been challenging for all facets of the economy, we can’t pretend that the pandemic is an isolated obstacle that can be overcome as we move towards a “new normal.”

Zoom out and consider the background to the coronavirus. Populist leaders had been on the rise all over the world. For years now, our social feeds have been full of hurt and rage. Climate change. Immigration. Identity politics. What can people on both sides of the political spectrum agree on? The 2020 version of the Edelman Trust Barometer suggested that 4 in 5 people in the developed world believe that future will be worse.

The primary function of the organization of the future will be to help our audiences, stakeholders, employees and customers look into the fractured and overwhelming information landscape and find direction, identity and belonging.

Most HR leaders take it for granted that the future is about building these human skills. The coronavirus crisis has confirmed this belief. Communication and work life balance is the number one challenge for employees working at home. The line between work and home has been blurred forever. As communications leaders, regardless of whether we are talking to internal or external stakeholders, we need to be setting the vision for the future. We need to be Meaning Makers.

As storytelling consultants, we consistently challenge our clients to tell a bigger story. Don’t just engage your audiences attention. Inspire them. Touch them. Help them become more resilient to change. Transform them in the only way that we can truly change others — by transforming yourself.

What follows is an overview of our COVID-19 Organizational Storytelling Playbook. This has been created to help our clients look beyond this immediate crisis. We hope you enjoy it.

Of course, if you want to learn more about applying this playbook to your business, feel free to reach out.

COVID-19 Playbook Overview

  1. Clarify our Thinking

    How can we provide a regular stream of clear, helpful, honest and compassionate information to our internal & external stakeholders, while respecting our need for prudence and confidentiality?

  2. Coach Inside & Outside

    How can we shift the culture, attitudes and soft skills of our organization so that we can integrate emotional fluency, relationship skills and vulnerability into everything?

  3. Challenge our Old Beliefs

    What operating practices must we let go, so we can adapt to a world where post-COVID become pre-whatever comes next? And how do we empower our inner resources to lead their own change?

Clarify our Thinking:

Bringing Honesty & Emotional Resonance to our Messaging

To work smarter, faster and cheaper, we need to start by slowing down, stepping back and clarifying where we’re heading.

Questions we’re hearing leaders ask:

  • “How can we demonstrate our compassion and understanding of our customers’ struggles, providing short term & medium term solutions to help them adapt?”
  • “How can we create trusted patterns of two-way communication that reduce isolation and deliver clear guidance?”
  • “How can we give our employees better emotional support, clarity from their leaders, and tips to make work at home easier?”
  • “How can we blur the line between work & life to better address mental health, and physical & emotional well-being?”
  • “How can we be honest about uncertainty without undermining our authority and expertise?”

Key Plays We Recommend:

1. Obligate leaders to take time to review and reflect:

Despite the pressure to provide fast answers, leaders need to build reflective moments for deep thinking into their weekly calendar. These obligatory moments should combine time alone with creative time as a group. Strategic planning will become a weekly activity, rather than an annual event.

2. Establish uncertainty & vulnerability as integral to your ways of working:

Bring a blank slate to your team. Collaboratively develop charters and agreements. Develop regular communications whole person “check-ins” that establish trust beyond the legacy boundaries of what was not safe for work. The success of teams in the future will be judged as much by the experience of the employee and customer as the results.

3. Start meaningful work on your team & organizational vision:

Most team & organizational visions are trite, vapid buzzword soup. We need genuine and emotive visions that can inspire us to have hope in the future again. Ask yourself: besides profit, why are we here? Be sure the answer moves you. For best results, involve your team, followers and customers in the vision-development process.

4. Encourage leaders — especially executives — to tell aspects of their own story:

Crisis is hitting all of us differently. As much as we want to know, we also want to commiserate, grieve, complain and be together, even as we are forced to be apart. Executives have long believed that their role is to “deliver the information” and “keep the emotions out of it.” That belief is out of date. Give leaders guidance for telling their own stories in a meaningful, engaging and transformational way.

5. Embed communicators in every team across the organization:

Great organizations are full of great communicators. Full stop. Establish a skilled communicator on every team throughout the organization, regardless of whether that team performs a typical communication function. Great communication is the pre-requisite for collaboration, innovation, psychological safety, resilience and all other next gen aspects of the future of work.

Coach Inside & Outside:

Developing Next Gen Communications Skills for Everyone in the Organization

To help employees develop the essential human skills of the future, we need to change our attitude about training, selling & what is and isn’t safe for work.

Organizational leaders are asking questions like:

  • “How do we reskill to adapt & thrive in the new operating ecosystem?”
  • “How does leadership change in the new normal?”
  • “How do we empower inexperienced managers to develop resilience and emotional intelligence?”
  • “How will corporate learning programs change?”
  • “What new relationship will we forge with customers and audiences as we all navigate global transitioning?”

Key Plays We Recommend:

1. At the executive level, create a clear contrast between training-aslearning and coaching-as-learning:

Training is highly effective at getting people to respond to commands. A coaching approach leads to innovation, resilience and insight. Executives must understand the difference, if they want to nurture the necessary skills for the future of work. You can’t train empathy or psychological safety.

This seems like a subtle distinction. It’s not.

2. Emphasize the “Flipped Classroom” approach to remote learning:

School children don’t do homework the way we used to. Rather than assigning homework at home and delivering lessons during the day, educators have embraced the Flipped Classroom: lessons delivered as readings at home, while homework completed during the day. This is a viable way to overcome Zoom fatigue. Use collaboration tools to share content in advance. Then schedule time together to focus on application, integration and conversation around that content. In an uncertain environment, no one has the right answer. Find the process for learning together.

3. Prioritize learning that improves employee’s listening, empathy, compassion, meaning making & communications skills:

Do you have an employee listening development strategy? If not, how do you think you’ll get better? Storytelling process works excellently here as a mechanism for finding, sharing and learning from each other — and then taking action.

4. Bring a coaching tone to external sales & marketing too:

The servant leader mindset applies to sales & marketing too. No one knows what’s coming next. Prospects and customers are gravitating towards guidance, not solutions. Ask: how would you approach marketing communications if your entire business depended on coaching your customers? Then experiment, experiment, experiment.

Challenge Old Beliefs:

Restructure Towards a Vision of Higher Change Resilience

To thrive in a world that will never be normal ever again, recenter your organization on learning, adaptation, values and wisdom.

Organizational leaders are asking questions like:

  • “How do we need to transform our business model for the rapidly transforming economic landscape?”
  • “How do we create high functioning innovation teams while so many of us are still working from home?”
  • “We understand that now is the time to lean into culture. But how can we integrate culture, strategy and the shift towards human centric jobs?”
  • “How can we slow down and pick up speed at the same time?

Key Plays We Recommend:

1. Raise the scope of your strategic narrative & vision.

Profit will no longer be the sole driver of an organization in an environment of endless change. 40 million people are out of work in America as of this writing. We are living through a radical redesign of the way we all live and work. How can you help us? How can you lead us? How can you empower us to adapt? Right now, the leaders of the future are busily preparing more visionary narratives.

2. Reorganize teams as “learning cohorts”.

Organizations have been designed for work. Universities are designed for learning. How can your organization be more like a university? Consider re-organizing your team into cross-functional learning cohorts. On a regular cadence, like one afternoon a week, teams will drop their regular work and focus on learning. Learning can be reinforced with additional resources shared on collaboration tools. Employees can complete courses and cohorts can shift and reform. What they learn isn’t important. It’s much more important that they learn how to learn.

3. Don’t innovate solutions. Find and coach your people in an innovation process.

We can’t think of innovation as something that will be performed once. There will never be an end to innovation. Organizations need to fold innovation and change management skills into every employee within the organization. To do this effectively, help people think like innovators by giving them conceptual scaffolding to follow. Innovation teams should coach innovation-thinking, rather than looking for solutions.

4. Smash the final frontier of the work-life divide.

Organizations are the last remaining source of belonging and purpose, in a world of sharply declining religious belief. For better or worse, work has become our primary form of connection and identity. Embrace this. Push for more vulnerability & honesty in all the ways you work. Create rituals that unify with genuine emotional depth. Design work that helps us all find more passion in how we live and love. Transform panic into hope.

How We Can Help You Take the Next Step

Facilitated Strategic Planning Sessions

We’re helping leaders & teams articulate specific action plans for implementing their pivots.

Team Communications Coaching

We’re working with teams to build their human skill sets, especially when it comes to communications & virtual presenting.

Leadership Coaching for Resilience

We’re helping individual leaders improve their own resilience, so they can more meaningfully help others.