FROM THE COMMS CUPBOARD, Episode #32

How comms teams combat short-term thinking

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The pandemic brought with it short-term plans to counter its effects. But what about the long-term? John and Shaun have a short discussion about it.

How important is it to think long-term when it comes to business decisions, and what responsibilities do we have as communications professionals to help people see beyond the present situation?

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Episode transcript

John: Do you miss our intro? Do you think it was a little bit of short-term thinking of us to get rid of our intro?

Shaun: Do you mean the bit where I say, this is …

John: Bom bo-bo-bom bom 🎶

Shaun: We’ve still got the jingle, but we don’t have that repetitive intro I used to say.

John: What does the data tell us? Do people like the jingle? Should we bring it back?

Shaun: How many of those people have mentioned the intro? Zero.

John: That’s true.

Shaun: If someone mentions it who is perhaps listening out there now, if you want the return of the intro just let us know. Otherwise it is on permanent hiatus.

John: You changed it because your long-term sanity required that you didn’t say those words again.

Shaun: Ah, I see where you’re going here. My long-term sanity. I thought ahead far enough to think that this is really going to bug me down the line.

John: Yeah.

Shaun: Are we talking about down-the-line stuff? Ooh, go on.

John: What are your thoughts on short-term thinking at the moment? We are in a global pandemic, where businesses are really struggling – how much do you think people are thinking longer term, or do you think they’re just thinking in the moment?

Shaun: I do think we can get caught up in what we are told. And what we are told isn’t necessarily the truth – it’s just what people want to sell headlines off or get agitated about with no particular grounds for it. But I do think there is an element of people getting caught up in the short-termism of the pandemic, and company decisions come in to that I think.

John: I do too. It’s interesting because I think a lot of people thought the pandemic would be short-term, but we are coming up to a year of being this way right now. Obviously we all reacted in different ways when it happened, so we may have made some short-term decisions that may have come back to haunt us a little bit in the way we act as organisations.

Shaun: Can you give me an example?

John: I guess the support that we’ve given people; maybe in relaxing policies and processes … It’s OK not to have delivered something, that sort of thing. We have relaxed some of those business rules we followed in the short-term to help people, which is great. But when something goes longer-term – say your business isn’t doing well – how do you remove some of those things people had?

Shaun: You would hope that the people that had the benefits of the short-term thinking realise that it was only for a short-term moment. Have you found that there are expectations for those decisions to continue?

John: Yeah, I think so. It’s very easy to think that way, because something becomes a new norm because the outside influence hasn’t changed. As comms people, how do we get people looking forward when it’s hard to get out of the moment?

Shaun: That’s a real challenge because we’re assuming that communications teams also see things long-term. But there is short-termism in every department across every specialism, communications included.

John: Absolutely. I think it’s our job as professionals to look beyond something to see how you come out of the other end, and how you move back to plan. That’s a really important thing we have to do.

Shaun: I’m going to use a popular British high street brand here. For our American listeners, we have a store called John Lewis. A retailer. They have been around … How long have they been around?

John: A hundred years, if not longer.

Shaun: It’s a reputable brand. A lifestyle, aspirational brand. It’s been a high street staple for many many years. It also runs a business model whereby its employees are partners. They all have an interest …

John: A vote.

Shaun: A vote; an interest in the company; they are all shareholders of the company. And there are pros and cons because, what we’re talking about now, when a company needs to act quickly – perhaps during a pandemic or something happens – and you need to make quick decisions, John Lewis has shown that it has been a little slow to make those decisions than other businesses. Their agility isn’t quite as good even though some would put them on a pedestal to say this is how to run a democratic company. But because they have so many voices, and people who have been there longer-term, I think there’s more short-termism in John Lewis than in another retail brand where they make decisions very quickly.

John: I think there is a lot of examples, particularly in retail, where you’ve seen the rise of online-only clothing brands, offering much more online because it’s their business model. Older retailers are having to compete with people who don’t have that older infrastructure. So they’re able to quickly move forward and do something new: same-day delivery, seeing what it looks like to wear these clothes, trying them on – all of these things that are very difficult for an older company to shift and pivot to do.

Shaun: It took John Lewis ages to go contactless when every other retailer had done it.

John: How long does your well-respected brand last when short-term issues hit them and you can’t move quickly?

Shaun: I wonder how the John Lewis communications department handles itself on the partnership model? That would be interesting to find out.

John: It would. I think we would probably see other examples not other industries, like banking. A lot of upstart banking companies, particularly here in the UK, are offering a fully online service. They’re not really impacted at all by the pandemic in that respect.

Shaun: In fact they are reaping the rewards of people wanting to digitally bank, because they can’t go out to their branch as it’s closed. So they are seeing an uptick in people wanting their services. But the older banks had the short-term view of nothing’s going to change and we’re too big to fail. They are finding out that they don’t necessarily have long-term vision.

John: Absolutely. And if you haven’t got that when something happens like this, and you’re still thinking short-term about what’s going to happen in the next year, then it’s game over. Where do you go from there?

Shaun: What are you like for long-term thinking, personally?

John: I am maybe like a C+. I could do better 😄 How about you?

Shaun: Sometimes I’m guilty of too much long-term thinking at the expense of short-term thinking!

John: You’re already planning that retirement!

Shaun: I’m already planning how I want something to look a long time from now, and I sometimes skip the steps needed to get there. I guess some companies do that too.

John: Loads do. It would be really interesting to think of organisations that completely change what they do. They really do think, actually we’re going to close all of our shops, or we’re going to sell a completely different product. It will be strange if a car company suddenly turned around and said “no more combustion engines”, or something like that. That would be interesting.

Shaun: Didn’t Mercedes already do that?

John: I think they did, but down the line. Maybe that’s good long-term planning that they know in 10 years’ time, they won’t be doing any more of this. Stop investment. That’s clever.

Shaun: Down with the combustion engine 🤺

John: All hail the electric motor!

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