Critical comms in a chaotic year

From facemasks to endless video calls, COVID-19 has changed many things - but not Volkswagen Group's need for clear, concise communications

Words by Nic Shaw

Two years years ago I was introduced to the concept of ‘VUCA’ on a training course in deepest Oxfordshire. Coined in the ’80s by the US military, I learned this ugly acronym stood for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. It sounded rather pretentious at the time: were we really drawing parallels between life-and-death battlefield decisions and our own business conundrums? But the phrase stuck with me – rather like something you might ‘bazooka’ or hide under a rubber sock.

Yet 2020 has been as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous as any year I can remember. On top of the combined chaos of playground politics, Brexit and climate change with which we started the year, now we had a deadly pandemic to endure. And when the first lockdown began, it hit the automotive industry hard: factories and supply chains ground to a halt, and the dealerships shut overnight, with more than 95% of the people working in them furloughed.

Those people, working in sales, aftersales and technical roles, make up most of my team’s core audience. On behalf of Volkswagen Group (VWG) and using a bespoke digital platform called Hub, we publish all primary communications between head office and the network of Volkswagen, Audi, SEAT and ŠKODA showrooms and workshops across the UK. So when our audience evaporated and our Google Analytics charts nosedived it was disconcerting, to put it mildly. Perspective is vital, of course: every industry was hit hard and my team and I were fortunate to be able to work from home, far away from the terrifying reality of the COVID-19 front line. But what was next? Would we also be asked to shut our laptops and consider volunteering?

Quite the opposite, it turns out. For the six months from April to September, my team of editors published almost 7000 articles, 30% more than for the same period last year. Yes, from how to pause an entire industry to how to kick-start it in June and then ramp up for model launches and the autumn plate change, there’s been a lot to communicate. But to their enormous credit, they’ve worked relentlessly: sweating the details, crunching the data, and applying journalistic zeal and rigour to bring the brands’ messages to life in new, engaging ways.

Volume isn’t everything, of course, and you could – and we did – question the sense in publishing lots of content when most of our audience was offline. But the information still needed to be shared, and for the people still working and urgently re-engineering their businesses for a world of contactless sales and servicing, clear, concise, timely guidance was what they needed.

Interestingly, the data suggests that the audience we retained through the depths of lockdown was more engaged than ever, on average spending more time consuming more articles, and asking more questions during interactive sessions. That’s perhaps not surprising: in line with ever-changing government advice, the brands’ guidance was both need-to-know and evolving – and when a date was set for the showrooms to reopen, it was a case of pulling out all the stops to get the year back on track.

VWG and its network partners have done a great job, too: sales have proven resilient and contactless sales and service eminently feasible. Combined with a dozen or more exciting new models in the pipeline there are good reasons for optimism, even if we all have a tough winter ahead.

But we’re in the business of communications, not selling cars, so should we also feel optimistic in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world? Unequivocally: the absence of good information breeds speculation, which is rarely healthy – but high-quality, timely, transparent communications, delivered in the right way, to the right audience, are a simple vaccine.

It’s a view echoed by the Institute of Internal Communications, which last month kindly awarded Wonderly a brace of awards for our work with VWG. Such recognition is both welcome and very gratefully received, but in late 2020 to be busy and working with a great team is a prize in itself.

 

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