We let the facts do the talking.

WHAT COMMUNICATORS SHOULD DO IN TIMES OF ECONOMIC UNCERTAINTY

The omens don’t look too promising economically for the remaining nine months of this calendar year. Company expenditure across the globe is being put on the back burner amid lingering concerns over the Chinese economy and the price of oil. Reports have progressively been predicting a tough time ahead and, here in the UAE, business and government spending has been curtailed, with the upshot being that projects have been put on hold for the time being at least.

While that dire backdrop and forecast has understandably had an adverse effect on the financial sector and the government, there is also a prospective fiscal pinch in the pipeline in terms of the resources of all sorts of communication organizations. Regrettably, in periods of hardship, it’s the communication and marketing budgets that usually take a substantial hit first, resulting in many organisations just falling silent at a crucial point when it’s essential to interact with and guide stakeholders (EG: customers, investors, partners and the media).

Being as we are in the middle of the annual results season for companies listed on the UAE stock exchanges, I have a few musings on what such organisations should be doing with their communication strategies in 2016.

Twice yearly stakeholder perception audits

Naturally, having a firm grasp of the attitudes and perceptions of key stakeholders – analysts, brokers, the financial media and stakeholders, among others – has to be a continual pursuit. I advocate stakeholder perception audits at least twice a year to my clients, especially before and after major communication campaigns (Stakeholder understanding is, of course, even easier than a formal piece of research nowadays thanks to the real-time measurement of social media engagement).  Understanding your stakeholders provides the bedrock to communication strategy, measurement and evaluation, and consequently the opportunity to establish success.

It is fundamental for listed companies to understand the observations and views of their stakeholders in times of economic uncertainty – their preparedness to last the course with regards to their purchase; to endorse shares to their clients; the level of their appreciation of your long-term business plan and their backing for your strategy this year.  That, in turn, will allow listed companies to address any perceptions that may require tweaking, frame messages and prioritize communication efforts.

For all sorts of companies with limited budgets in difficult economic times, it is absolutely imperative to show that those monetary means are being put to good use. It’s even more important than ever as well for communicators to be able to show that you are reaching – and influencing – stakeholders and measuring their perceptions on an ongoing basis will enable you to do exactly that.

Key messages remain relevant

A significant cornerstone of communication strategy is ‘key messages’ – phases and words that are regularly used across all forms of communication in order to raise awareness, support and understanding among stakeholders – ultimately driving them to take action. It’s appealing to discard the ‘message house’ and revert to saying anything that will result in businesses buying, customers shopping, investors refusing to sell and partners agreeing to do business with you in challenging circumstances monetarily.

Revenue and sales are undoubtedly vital in an economic downturn; consistency in brand and message over the long term is what should be maintained from a strategic POV. Listed companies must concentrate on what the stakeholder perception audits are revealing and should then focus on developing sub-messages to address the shift in perceptions, while staying loyal and true to the corporate message overall. Consider just how you might address the following scenarios for example:

  • Nervous shareholders fretting over your increased losses and falling revenues
  • Inquisitive journalists enquiring if you plan to stick to your long-term business strategy
  • Analysts questioning if you strategies already in place to ride out the storm this year and beyond

Such concerns would be unearthed in your stakeholder perception audits and you would thus be afforded the chance to develop sub-messages for 2016 to drive understanding and support from these types of stakeholders within the long-term messages overall.

Keep the lines open

It is tempting to stop all but required communications for many listed companies when money is tight – limiting activity to financial results and regulatory disclosures and keeping a low profile publically until the climate improves economically. The very worst thing listed companies can do without a shadow of a doubt is reign-in communication with stakeholders. It will cause them to wonder if the flow of communication comes to an unexpected end and, amid the void in the back-and-forth exchanges, they will likely fill it with their own conclusions as to what’s really going on with your company and that assumption is more often than not at the very lowest end of the spectrum.

With diligent and continual understanding of key stakeholders and a staunch set of messages, I firmly believe that listed companies should continue to engage – accept interview requests from journalists, keep shareholders informed and undertake presentations to analysts – so that influencers and stakeholders remain up-to-date with the company’s strategies and status. Even if it’s not great news, I’s better than no engagement at all.

In closing

What seems certain is this year will be a difficult one for many UAE businesses. The pressure shall intensify on most communication teams, with them having to ‘do more with less.’ Listed companies must continue to engage with important stakeholders – based on ongoing stakeholder understanding and build around a set of messages that resonate during difficult times, rather than bury their heads in the sand like an ostrich. Continuous communication with stakeholders is what harnesses support and understanding for the company and management team in the long term, in spite of the fluctuating fortunes of the global economy.