There are a lot of unspeakable things happening the world. It’s the job of the modern-day communications team to put words to them. But our role goes far articulating the ‘hard to say.’ We convene with stakeholders to start conversations and work toward action.
These days, sitting on the sidelines isn’t an option. Stakeholders expect — insist — that companies have a view on the news making events impacting the communities in which they operate. At M&T Bank, the company at which I’ve worked for the last 19 years, this feels natural. We’re a community bank with deep roots in each of the cities and towns we serve. We care about the things happening in each community because, as we like to say, we live here, too.
The right tool for a hard job
Unfortunately, in recent times those news making events have been impossibly tragic and difficult to come to grips with. It’s made the job of today’s communication leaders that much harder. Something happens. Something bad. The communications team quickly convenes with leaders around the organization. Should we say something? What should we say?
A year or so ago, we realized we’d had too many of these conversations. We were, meeting too frequently on tragedies. These are hard conversations that expend much energy.
The first question was harder, we found, to answer than the second. We needed a better way.
Over the course of several months, we worked with a group of internal and external stakeholders to develop a tool to make hard conversations a bit easier. We developed a ‘Decision Making Framework’ to help answer that vexing first question — should we say something?
The tool helped us understand when current events were relevant to our company’s mission and the impact they might have on communities across our footprint. In the simplest terms, we built a flow chart that helped us remove some of the emotion from what tended to be charged, fast moving conversations. Considering a given issue’s relevance to our brand and mission, its impact on each of our stakeholders and their expectations that we might respond led us to the right decision.
It’s important to qualify that the framework is a tool and not a solution. There will always be room for human judgement in the communications business. But frameworks make people smarter and allow leaders to focus our energies.
Applying the framework in our own backyard
It used to be that the tragedy always happened somewhere else. That point isn’t useful or even relevant until it ceases to be true. When the thing happens in your backyard, everything changes.
It was a sunny, spring afternoon in Buffalo. A Saturday. My phone started buzzing. You know much of the story. A racially motivated attack in a crowded supermarket. 10 innocent people dead.
This tragedy was a high-pressure stress test for the framework we’d all worked so hard to build — a much more ‘real’ scenario than we could have ever conceived of. Of course, the framework suggested that we needed to say something and say it fast. We did and then we did more. We acted and set about devising workflows to help our hometown when they needed us most. A cross-functional task force came together daily to determine how we could help. As an organization, we made a substantial monetary commitment and told our colleagues we’d match any contribution they made. We collected needed food and household supplies.
For the next several weeks, we were more than a communications team — we were first responders. And we did whatever we could to help our community—everything from convening prayer vigils to helping to coordinate supply donations.
All communications leaders learn to be prepared for the unexpected. With the benefit of time to reflect and wounds to heal, I’d like to think that our framework helped us move faster. It allowed us to spend less time pondering the problem and more time devising solutions.
Kevin Berchou is the head of internal communications at M&T Bank.