What 2020 Taught HR About Communications

I never even heard the term “fake news” until 2016. Although it rapidly became a Donald Trump rallying cry, cynically (and inaccurately) tied to respected and legitimate journalism, if you peer back through the dark mists of time you may recall that was not its initial meaning.

Four years ago, it was used to describe made-up news stories emanating from content farms and showing up on social media, often with no motivation other than making a quick buck. Call me naïve, but I remember the shock I felt realizing that anyone could just make stuff up and put it out there, masquerading as news.

Since then, we’ve all learned to be wary of our sources. While this wariness more often applies to the public arena, it undoubtedly puts business leaders on notice, as well: Your employees are paying close attention. And, importantly, a lack of fact-based information isn’t the only problem. 

Another communications barrier we’ve all come across in recent years is a lack of information, period. Assurances that we weren’t being told the truth for our own good (Trump didn’t want to sow panic) have not gone over well with a public hungry for information in the face of a devastating pandemic. If there’s one thing the last few years have surely taught us, it’s the importance and value of candid, transparent, and ongoing communications.

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Businesses are not countries, and employees are not constituents. But there are still plenty of lessons leaders can take from all this:

  • Especially in an age when people have become accustomed to questioning news, and no longer necessarily believe their own eyes and ears, honesty is essential. If you are ever dishonest, you will be found out, and trust and credibility will take a serious hit.
  • You are protecting no one by withholding information. Adults need to be treated like adults by being given the information they need to understand the situation so they can make their own decisions. In a business context, this becomes especially important. Employees who grasp the situation, even if the news isn’t good, may find solutions that benefit everyone.
  • When people don’t get the information they need, or have reason not to trust the information they get, they start making things up. In the age of social media, gossip spreads exponentially, and the rumor mill grinds on 24 hours a day. Even when rumors aren’t flying, not knowing what is going on, especially in a crisis, wastes everyone’s time. It’s not rocket science: Employees who aren’t scrambling to figure out what’s going on can get a whole lot more done. 
  • It is not necessary to have all the answers before communicating. And in times of great flux, like we’re living through right now, it’s OK if the answers you do have change. The fact that we’re all vulnerable, and always learning, is an excellent message in itself. 

Finally, if there’s one lesson to take from the place we all find ourselves now, it’s that communications are not an add-on, not a “nice to have.” They are perhaps the most important part of any business strategy — the lifeblood of any organization. Without clear, honest, ongoing communications, we are sunk. 

Robin Hardman, owner of Robin Hardman Communications, helps companies of all sizes win recognition by helping them put together the best possible “best place to work” and other corporate awards submissions — from Working Mother and Fortune to the Stevies and IABC. When she's not doing that, Robin is helping companies communicate to their employees with compelling and easy-to-read benefits, HR, and general-topic employee communications. Contact her at robin@robinhardman.com.

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