Soft skills prove their worth in pandemic crisis


The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many things including the value of clear communications. A recent study by two UK-based economists found that countries and territories that have done well in managing the pandemic had leaders, often women, who demonstrated big thinking, empathy and good communication skills.

Here in New Zealand, even those who disagree with Jacinda Ardern’s politics and policies cannot help but admire her communications performance and style which is clear, authentic and empathetic. Her approach has garnered international praise and helped build trust and engagement with the public.

The Prime Minister has been supported by other good communicators – Dr Ashley Bloomfield, Siouxsie Wiles and Dr Michelle Dickinson – experts with the ability to convey complex information in plain and relatable ways for the public.

Sadly, soft skills like communications haven’t always been valued as much. At the tertiary education level, there is often a perception that students with good grades at high school will pick up STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), medicine or law at university.

Advertising pioneer Bill Bernbach of DDB once said: “an important idea not communicated persuasively is like having no idea at all.”

In other words, you need a compelling story to sell your products and services, especially in tough times like a crisis or economic downturn.

Despite this insight and the commendable performance of our Prime Minister in several crises, including the Christchurch terrorist attack, it’s concerning that many of our leaders have a crisis of confidence when it comes to dealing with issues.

The SenateSHJ 2020 Reputation Reality Report, a regular survey of Trans-Tasman business leaders, conducted in partnership with the Governance Institute of Australia this year, found that while 69% of those surveyed in New Zealand had crisis communications plans in place, only 26% tested them annually.

This lack of preparedness was highlighted by a company director who told a business summit in Auckland last week that many companies didn’t have a crisis plan when the global pandemic hit our shores. As the saying goes, failure to prepare is preparing to fail.

Alongside this lack of preparedness is a general lack of investment in reputation management, despite 97% of business leaders saying reputation is their primary asset. The Reputation Reality survey shows reputation is underpinned by good products and services, integrity, relationships and culture – a lot of “soft” skills. Tellingly, more than 70% of organisations ranked stakeholder engagement as crucial.

This is bread and butter stuff for communications experts who know how to manage reputation risks and how to communicate clearly in a crisis. Good communications practitioners understand that communications is about listening and learning, as much as it is about telling and asking. But, these skills are still missing from the top echelons of business who need them more than ever before.

Boards continue to select people with compliance-related skills, when what they need is more diverse expertise in a modern, diverse world that’s grappling with increasingly complex issues. And in many organisations, communications practitioners continue to be seen as media relations advisors rather than reputation management experts.

The latest arena where soft skills are starting to prove their worth is that of conduct and culture, as highlighted by Australia’s Royal Commission of Inquiry into the banking and finance sector. The inquiry showed the lack of “corporate conscience” among the institutions it investigated – a gap that’s being filled by communications experts with the soft skills needed to call time on bad behaviour.

While it’s important to ensure communications is represented in business leadership and governance, there is also a need to ensure communications professionals and the industry are representative of the communities they serve. It is therefore good to see the industry body, the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand, seeking to address the two areas which need focus – a lack of ethnic diversity, in relation to Māori, Pacific and Asian practitioners, and the need to increase the number of practitioners that identify as men, particularly among the lower age range.

COVID-19 showed us that organisations which were close to their stakeholders, which were nimble, and saw risk and opportunity both, were the ones that came out better off and with their reputations still intact.

As with any crisis, there’s always a silver lining and for COVID-19 one of them is appreciating the value of soft skills to compliment hard ones. It’s also about understanding the importance of honing those skills through proper planning and preparation, adding those skills to the top table of all our institutions, and building a pipeline of talent which is representative of our population.

It’s time we took a harder look at our softer skills and their importance to our success and survival.

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