Written By: Lenox Lizwi Mhlanga

The New Year gives everyone the opportunity to recharge and perhaps start on a new slate. However, the previous year has been far from being an ideal one. Most organisations are trying to recover from the trauma of a pandemic of epic proportions. As the second wave threatens to overrun economies, the negative impact to business will be great.

It is in this gloomy environment that communicators seem to have gained relevance. Professionals talk about a ‘new era’ where executive suddenly have found communication to be a critical component of the body armour of an organisation faced with an enduring crisis.

The traumatic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has corporates asking; how can we deal with this? The health crisis found them unprepared. Not if they had listened to their communications people, that is. The very people they have left in the background until something that needed a bit of whitewash came up.

What has been apparent is that a crisis of this nature has funded most leaders to be emotionally unintelligent?

As the pandemic forced governments the world over to implement debilitating lockdowns, the devastating emotional impact employees, customers and other stakeholders has been immense.

Workers had to deal with the new normal of staying at home, unsure whether their jobs would be there if their workplaces reopened. Customers could not access goods and services, especially those that still operated from brick and mortar premises.

While business leaders tried to process the overall impact and the glaring prospect of never emerging intact from the pandemic. With this staring them in the face, business seemed to lose compassion.

Predictably, as the threat of the first wave seemed to diminish, some big brands struggled to regain the foothold they previously had on the market. Most of them are still in a funk and the second wave has exposed them.

Corporates sacrifice the reputation and image that they have painstakingly built over the years, in order to gain ground after a crisis. As the festive season approached at the end of 2020, some greedy businesses threw consumers under the bus, with some of them reverting to being rapacious, making as much money as they could as people were still reeling from the effects of lockdowns and shutdowns.

The explanation is simple; the people running them lacked emotional intelligence.

We make such a damning statement because as public relations professionals, it’s our mandate to ensure that organisations should work in the interests of the public that we rely on for the business to thrive. In our work, we insist on ethical parameters for management as they make business decisions.

We are in a people-oriented field and our concern is about what people think, feel and say about brands they interact with. We put themselves in people’s shoes and then proffer people-centric solutions for clients who seek the goods and services of the businesses we serve.

PR professionals thrive as the conscience of the organisation. Even when the bottom line is under threat, like in the pandemic’s case. The principles of honesty, integrity, openness, trust, respect, and empathy make for healthy relationships result in sound, long-term relationships well.

We encourage organisations to tap into these to nurture sound relationships between them and its various publics. Public relations is about human relations and relationships. People are emotional beings, a quality that eludes most animals, PR pros help deal with these emotions.

Daniel Goleman, the man who fashioned and popularised the term “emotional intelligence,” says that it is all about relationships.

“It’s about the ability to understand how someone else thinks about things and to put things in a way that makes sense of how they see the world,” Goleman says.

Emotional Intelligence sets the moral compass of a person, a leader, and an organisation. In public relations, we are on about organisations and people being proactive in nurturing and maintaining positive relationships with others. It is the solid basis of good business practice.

PR is also about managing perceptions, knowing that these are born of emotions. It is such emotions that are at play when businesses throw caution to the wind, behaving without compassion just because they want to survive the crisis.

Emotional Intelligence is about business being able to read the mood of its publics. Ethical business practice is about trust, respect, openness, sincerity, honesty and empathy. Customers look for credibility, and a provider of goods or services that has a genuine regard for them and that truly listens, rewarded through loyalty.

Businesses that are being proactive by doing the right thing earn the respect of their customers. No amount of fire-fighting will change the negative perceptions about how people high and dry for selfish reasons during the pandemic.

As we enter 2021 faced with increased infections and the consequential lockdowns and other restriction, organisations should consider principles of effective public relations related to competencies in emotional intelligence identified by Robert L Heath and W Timothy Coombs.

They should be community-oriented and seek to put the best information into play. Because people trust organisations that serve them, they will listen when they relay credible information that will assist them in deciding during the pandemic.

For this to be effective, companies have the obligation to analyse the information that is in play, and invite its analysis, especially when it concerns the decisions they make that could affect their stakeholders.

In PR, we encourage dialogue that involves feedback where people may express their feelings about decisions made that affect them. Businesses that invite and engage in a genuine dialogue that is open and honest, while seeking outcomes that feature “win-win” alternatives earn the trust of their stakeholders.

The other principle is the ability to listen, give regard, and respond in ways that prove commitment not merely to defend a position but also to foster dialogue that can lead all interested parties to achieve a mutually satisfying and beneficial outcome.

In conclusion, businesses might not have had the time nor the patience to consider any of these when faced with the crisis of the pandemic. However, if only they consulted their PR people whose job is to counsel executives on crisis communications and management, they would be better prepared to make emotionally intelligent decisions.

Lenox Mhlanga is a strategic communication consultant with Sunshine Corporate Communications, a consultancy that specialises in strategic reputation and image management. He can be contacted at lenox@sunshinecoms.com or Mobile: +263 772 400 656