The Coronavirus has brought about an economic crisis. Large corporations, airlines, hotel chains, Automobile Industry along with the Banking and Finance Industry have all been negatively impacted. Information has been a key driver in this period of uncertainty. The Head of Corporate Communications and Marketing at JS Bank, Hasan Saeed discusses how Pakistani companies have done on this barometer. He also sheds light on the importance and burgeoning importance of Corporate Communications in Pakistan, owing to the lockdown situation.
Najma: How has the Communications industry fared during the Coronavirus. How do you think the messaging has been in this period? Are you happy with what the companies have given out?
Hasan: Corporate Communications has long been an ill-defined and often, overlooked function in the country. This has changed. With the onset of COVID-19, both the corporate and government sectors have awoken to the fact that they need dedicated professionals in place to communicate the right messages to the right audiences at the right time.
The past few months have been a roller coaster ride and we have seen the industry professionals rapidly adapt to changing market dynamics. This was especially critical considering the restrictive working environment e.g. movement restrictions, limited third-party support infrastructure etc. The ball was dropped in some cases, but this was to be expected. It has been quite a learning experience.
Consistent and factual communication was critical. Customers needed to be assured of business continuity, reliability, enterprise resilience, and operational support. Internal colleagues needed to be supported. Investors and other stakeholders had to be kept up to date. Most importantly, trust had to be built. Businesses which ensure right communication will be able to minimize the near and long-term financial and reputational impact on our businesses.
Najma: Do you think the companies have been through a period like this before?
Hasan: I do not think that companies in the modern space have faced this kind of pandemic or business disruption on such a scale before, 9/11 or the 2008 financial crisis could be termed crucial but the entire world came back on its feet within 6 months. Whenever there has been a disruption, it has been restricted to a certain industry, region, or factor. But this has impacted everything globally: all industries, communities and every individual. So, I do not really think that we have faced this kind of a challenge earlier. Traditional crisis manuals have been thrown out the window, because to be frank, nothing about COVID-19 has been ‘traditional’.
Najma: What kind of key messaging have you had to deliver to your stakeholders in this period – to your employees, customers and maybe the government? Can you share some of the messages you sent?
Hasan: Safety and health formed the basis of our initial messaging. The first thing that we wanted to talk about – both to our internal colleagues as well as our customers – was that we value their safety and health. We put out a lot of communication with respect to the kind of precautionary measures that we are taking along with the health and safety measures at other operating locations at our offices.
Once we were past that phase, then we focused on how people can access the full suite of financial services in the best possible manner, without risking their health and safety. That is where we focused on promoting usage of digital channels, which I am pleased to share has been quite successful. We have seen an uptick of 2.5x in digital channel usage in these two months and the graph is continuing its upward swing. We hope to continue promoting this message in the future.
Najma: How did the digital channels help your messaging?
Hasan: Over the past two years, the Bank has understood the reach vs. cost benefit that digital platforms offer mid-tier market players such as ourselves. We have been steadily building our reach across digital platforms and have seen significant positive response from the public and customers.
This strategy paid off in more ways than one during the lockdown. With people in quarantine or stuck at home, the usage of mobile phones and internet sky-rocketed with digital channels being the number one source of information for people. And that is where we were present and ready.
Our digital outreach and education campaigns were picked up by both GroupM and Publicis Group as trends to follow and as a leading example in the Pakistan market.
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Najma: So, where should companies focus their messaging?
Hasan: I think companies need to emphasize on the element of humanity in their messaging. They need to show that they are standing by their community and show that it’s more than just making profit.
We need to change our messaging track from a sales pitch to human based communication. Today’s customers are not looking for a sales pitch, they are looking for reassurance and commitment.
And I think organizations that can communicate this to their stakeholders and customers are the ones that will progress and grow in the future.
Najma: Other than communications, how has JS Bank has helped the employees in this difficult period?
Hasan: I am happy to state that our management has been cognizant of the impact of COVID-19 from day one. JS Bank was the first bank in Pakistan to move to a 14-day operating model whereby, our staff was distributed into two teams. Team 1 would work on the first 14 days of the month and Team 2 would work on the other 14 days. We were also the first bank to move to a work-from-home model and even today back-office functions are operating on a pure WFH basis.
From Day One, we started internal communication on how one can take precautions when it comes to the corona virus. In addition, colleagues were provided with masks , glovessanitizers and thermal guns at all branches and offices.
It came to the stage where other bank teams presented JS Bank as a case study or an example to their management; that is, for them to follow suit and put the safety of their internal colleagues first.
Najma: Do you think that corporate communications – as a department – will become much more important during this period?
Hasan: Absolutely, companies have realized the importance of a Corporate Communications department vs a pure Marketing department. I believe moving forward, Corporate Communications would really come into its own. Unfortunately, at this time, Communications is treated as a subset of Marketing with one or two people making up the team. In comparison, internationally, this is a chartered and recognized field. We lack this right now, and COVID has created realization of the sheer importance and criticality of a communications team vs a pure marketing team.
Najma: Any words to aspiring communicators that you would like to share?
Hasan: Be flexible. In today’s world, you will need to adapt to working in a fluid environment and a news cycle that changes literally by the minute. There is little margin for error or for dragging your feet. Stakeholders with competing concerns need to be managed – and quickly –, so be ready to formulate and roll out a strategy centered on a strong, central message that speaks to all parties involved.
JS Bank, Mahvash and Jahangir Siddiqui Foundation and its partners have donated over Rs. 10 Million to the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation (SIUT) to counter the impact of Covid-19.#JSBank #BarhnaHaiAagey #JSBankFightsCorona pic.twitter.com/vdS49B21zQ— JS Bank (@jsblpak) May 14, 2020