PR Wars Podcast: Tip of the spear

Imagine being one of the first corporate communicators to prepare messaging for a historic pandemic. I mean… ground zero… the tip of the spear… having a manufacturing facility in Wuhan, China and creating a new playbook for its factories around the world. Today on the PR Wars podcast, Khaner Walker recounts the first days of the pandemic as Global Director of Internal and Executive Communications for computer giant Lenovo.

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Announcer
It’s time. Welcome to PR Wars. Coming at you live from Atlanta, Georgia. Now, here is your host, Chris Shigas.

Chris Shigas
Welcome to PR wars. I’m Chris Shigas. Imagine being one of the first corporate communicators to prepare messaging for a historic pandemic. I mean, Ground Zero… tip of the spear, having a manufacturing facility in Wu Han China, and then preparing your factories around the world. Months before the United States was dealing with covid 19 global companies, especially ones headquartered in China were opening their eyes to a new reality. Khaner Walker was the Global Director of Internal and Executive Communications for computer giant Lenovo. He’s currently the Senior Director of Communications at Syneos Health. But before we welcome Khaner to the show, I want to introduce my co host and fellow communications soothsayer, Brad Grantham.

Brad Grantham
You always get me with these intros. Chris, how am I supposed to respond to that? The only thing I can foresee today is that this is going to be one of our best shows we’ve had so far, and I’m looking forward to it.

Chris Shigas
Thanks so much, Brad. Hey, Khaner. Thanks for joining Brad and me. Working for a Chinese company like Lenovo in the United States. You’re a communications executive. And how did you realize that okay, this virus, it’s going to be big, and it’s going to impact our business.

Khaner Walker
Sure. So I was working at Lenovo for the past 10 years have recently left in early. Well, I recently began a new position in early July with another company. But looking back, it really was when we saw our global manufacturing facilities starting to close down, that just became kind of an eye opening moment. And there was a point in February where it looked like the virus was going to abate it looked like China had it literally under control, and it was going to stay within the country. And then we’re just kind of fingers crossed, and then slowly a bunch of tier one events just started, we’re canceling Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was canceled. A couple other events that were canceled that we’re looking at later on in the spring. And then in March, as you know, as the rest of the world knows we all went home, right so as the virus really escalated throughout Europe and throughout the United States and in the rest of the Americas

It just became something where it almost felt that was a little bit of Groundhog Day because we had already worked a cycle of communications around it, as it exploded as it literally rampage throughout China. And then we kind of had to take that same playbook and transfer it throughout the rest of the world on a geo by geo or region by region basis. Looking back now, was there a specific date in your mind that you said, Oh, my God, this is gonna be a lot bigger than I think people think it is at the moment. If so, what was that timeframe? I you know, Brad, I can tell you the exact date. It was the Chinese New Year and it was a one day I believe is January 27. So everyone was more or less going home the weekend, you know, kind of Thursday, Friday or Friday, prior to the Chinese New Year actually starting. And then what as soon as that happened, everything in ohana went on lockdown. Again, that was the epicenter and the Chinese government very much said okay everyone inside Wu Han stay indoors for the next two weeks or longer. And that was just what I knew things were getting serious for us.

Brad Grantham
So as that’s happening, what is happening in the background and your comms role at that time with your teams? What’s I mean, obviously, you can’t go too far into the details. I get that but kind of walk us through when it’s happening at that moment.

Khaner Walker
Sure. This became a long string of what I call, “I don’t know,” answers. And because we’re getting a lot of, you know, we’re all in this business. We’re getting a ton a ton of questions from media where we just don’t know the answers. And I think they were looking at us with a little bit of a raised eye because we are one of the companies that had a larger presence who has 10,000 employees that have a manufacturing site. We assemble most of you know a lot of Motorola phones there along with other computers and tablets, right. And our response was, we don’t know when we’re going to be back online and operational. This is what we think is going to be a global pandemic. Uh, you know, fingers crossed, hopefully it’s not, but it’s definitely a pandemic within China. And I think that really kind of, you know, we saw an impact to the stock price we saw an impact, you know, elsewhere throughout just the the media that was swirling around just technology company as a whole. You saw the story really starting to percolate first as a global supply chain story. If you guys remember that, we are kind of calling it a supply shock ply story. And then it switched to something much else, right, that story almost flip flopped, it became a demand shock story, right? And as everyone you know, started kind of just hunkering down in place.

Chris Shigas
Now, as you travel west, it was almost like Europe was several weeks behind China, the US was several weeks behind Europe. And here in the United States, we kind of had the luxury from a communication standpoint of seeing what other companies were doing and replicating some of those comms ideas and plans, but you are at the tip of the spear. You didn’t have a playbook for this. So how do you evaluate you have all these stakeholders? You have the media, you have employees, you have customers, how are you prioritizing these audiences, when you didn’t really know the full extent that this would take?

Khaner Walker
You know, it’s and I know we’ll touch on this probably at a later date. But it was a situation honestly, where all of a sudden internal communications did flip with external. And because literally, the priority of the company was on it sounds trite, because we’ve heard it said 1000 times, if not more, but the priority did become our employees, it became about the safety and health and well being of employees. You know, Lenovo is a company of 60,000 plus people, most of whom are traveling around the world all the time last year alone. I mean, I can’t even tell you the number of trips I made to China. I mean, it was it was a lot, right. And so it really was an instance where internal comms started taking the lead. It was just became a matrix, kind of cross collaborative group that was working with HR cybersecurity had a big part to play because we knew a lot of employees were going to start working remotely. It was bt as a whole as well, travel facilities, you know, all of a sudden real estate and comms became just tighter than normal, which was pretty interesting because it was all through the lens of health and safety. It was, you can’t come into the office, we don’t want you here, you know, that sort of thing. And really external became a little bit of the tail where external comms sort of drafting on the materials that we were developing internally among the company to employees. And that became some of the playbook message points and, you know, talking points that were starting to be used in our external stories.

Brad Grantham
In a moment like that, how close are you working with the executive leadership team, to make sure you know, and in some scenarios, the lt might be a little separated or a little far away. In this instance, I would have to imagine you’re working step in step with LT every step of the way from internal standpoint external standpoint. Yes. Can you walk us through that.

Khaner Walker
As the virus broke out during Chinese New Year, that’s the point in time where for those of you probably a lot of listeners aren’t as familiar with the Chinese New Year as I am. So I take it for granted a little bit. So I’ll backtrack during the Chinese New Year, a lot of employees leave the big cities in China and they go out to the countryside to visit their family connectivity in what’s called tier one cities is pretty good, if not great, as soon as you get outside of those tier one cities, internet connection, 4g service, all the things we take for granted. Working with colleagues overseas immediately starts going downhill so a lot of our comms went straight to text messages. You know, texting my CEO texting my cmo, you know, those were kind of some fond memories of my Chinese is non existent their English is you know, on text is is tough to begin with. SoIt was one of those instances where we just became even more close than normal. Right? And really it was, I keep on thinking, I don’t knows. But it was just all of us collectively working through so many I don’t knows, right, our chief legal officer, our chief HR officer, everyone had just a lot of those questions that we had to figure out.

Brad Grantham
What is there one channel that you’re used? whether that was video, whether that was social, whether that was a newsletter format? Was there? Was there one piece of content or a channel that you’re used during this that resonated more so than others? And if so, what was it?

Khaner Walker
I think it was the internet. I know I had the data to back that up in terms of the traffic despite right, but it was our approach was, let’s put all the comms there on the internet. So now it’s just a repository. You know what the latest update is to employees in Beijing? You know, the latest update is to employees in Wu Han, you know, at least employee you know.dot.to Italy and all the office sites around the world. And I think employees really liked that. Because you could tell there’s only 500 or so employees in a given office, but it has, you know, 10,000 opens, that means, you know, everyone else just wants to see kind of what’s happening, right. And then you add in the office guidelines, the travel guidelines and safety guidelines, right. And all of a sudden, that just becomes the hub right for everything. And so really, it just came back to good old fashioned editing HTML, you know, at 1am in the morning, as the latest travel policy document was made ready.

Chris Shigas
In any crisis, there’s this fog of war. You rarely get to really know the whole picture as you’re engaging in the communication during a hot crisis. As you look back now with perspective, is there anything maybe that you would have added to your communication plans or something where you think maybe could have used more focus?

Khaner Walker
I would say connecting earlier With our IT teams probably would have helped a lot, right? It was a fortunate situation where most of the company was transitioning to Microsoft Teams to kind of some other key pieces of software adding VPN gateways, right. But I think really having a firm understanding of just what we what extra steps and precautions we should take, right, with employees now working remotely phishing, DDoS denial of service attacks, and all those sorts of things are all things that, you know, companies like Lenovo are subject to every single day, those risks they extrapolate it measurably as soon as you’re outside of a firewall that you enjoy at an office, right kind of behind those closed company networks.

Chris Shigas
One of the challenges in crisis like this as you have factory workers going back to work, you have the cloud of this crisis overhead and really comes has to play a role in showing not only your employees, but also In the communities that you have facilities in that you’re a company that cares you care about their well being you care about their safety and their health. Tell me a little bit about about the role and overcomes played in communicating that concern.

Khaner Walker
My approach as a leader, especially someone who oversaw the internal communications was always to humanize not the brand but humanize the company right? Even if it came from a generic Lenovo comms mailbox if Lenovo comms was a person what kind of person will we want that you know, this inbox to kind of meet right and, and really switching the tone to, again to people first the some of it was just in very blunt messaging in the sense of you cannot travel do not travel right now. We’re putting a halt to all travel to keep you safe to keep your family safe and you know, dot, dot, dot and all that. So I think it was being very direct especially early on as it We’re so much misinformation Do you wear a mask and mask on effective COVID is no more dangerous than the flu, all that stuff is happening around us February and we’re still trying to make sense of it. And so a lot of employees are just kind of thinking this might be business as usual, and I’ll go about my day. And then some other employees are just literally scared for their lives. We just kind of took the approach of Let’s be direct, let’s say what we know and what we don’t know and what we’re gonna do with it, what we know and what we don’t know. Right.

Brad Grantham
On top of COVID, you had a another crisis that has been kind of circling for the past couple of years in the political realm. And that is involving tariffs from certain political leaders who will go unnamed, but, you know, so you’ve got COVID. You’ve got that in the background and has been in the background at the same time. How did you as a comms team, work to kind of be transparent during the back and forth between the US and China? You know, all these talks are going on, nobody really knows what’s going on. It’s hard to be effective, effectively communicate something like that. What was your position? How did you guys position that internally and externally, as talks were going back and forth?

Khaner Walker
Sure, I’d say some of the best work that team and I ever did will never see the light of day, right? Because our work was to keep us out of the story. And I think you guys, and your audience can relate to just how hard of a job that is, when the tendency is to Oh, well, the other biggest, largest Chinese company that we know of, and they’re a technology company is Lenovo. Right? I’ll go back to something that we all talk about, which is the brand’s last reputation piggy bank. For years, we had made a concerted effort to put as many coins in that piggy bank as possible under the under this global approach, right. And when you even open up the parkcrest it kind of Chinese company my eyebrows did a little IRQ because we call ourselves you know when other calls themselves a global company because they truly are. It’s it’s you know, it’s not 5050 but it’s it’s equal parts legend PC in China and equal parts IBM PC kind of rest of world right? And from that past 15 years of marriage, right, they truly have become a very global, very decentralized company. You just see the difference, right? I’ve been to Huawei offices and other countries in Brazil, in Spain, where you walk in and it’s all Chinese, whereas our offices in Brazil are 100% Brazilian, you know, office in Spain are 100% Spanish, that inherent major it’s kind of a murky response to your question, that inherent culture of the company in the of the two companies right, I think lends a lot of credence to our ability to stay out of that story. Because it wasn’t this was kind of a china us, you know, story. We had a little Bit of a luxury, you know, maybe the piggy bank got a little bit depleted because of that. But we had a little bit of a luxury to say this is global or global. Yes, we’re gonna be impacted. We don’t like it. But, you know, we stand by whatever the laws and tariffs are,

Chris Shigas
As we move past this crisis, hopefully someday, every corporate communications team, every agency, they’ve had on some level have been affected by this and that have had to relook at their function and how it handles itself in this crisis. I’m a hopeful person. And I think on some level, communications teams will be better coming out of this, what do you think maybe some of the lasting effects will be of how communication has changed. Now that we kind of collectively went through this as an industry.

Khaner Walker
I think a lot more focus will be paid on. The stories employees are sharing individually, right. I’m an assembly line worker for Amazon. And we haven’t slept in days, you know, kind of stories out there right now. COVID is only going to accelerate the shift from earn to own media channels, honestly, and especially as governments vacate some of this role as the media itself kind of vacate some of this role as well, you’ll just get to see more of a reliance to go straight to the company in terms of, hey, what’s the update on my on my phone? Because I know there’s a supply chain issue overseas in China within the top 10 tweets, right, you know, of that company. It’s that news is gonna be there, right. And there’s no reason for the company in today’s day and age to mislead you about any of that information. So I think you’ll continue to see that trend. I do think internal communications teams are being looked at at an entirely different light. You’re now seeing the shift, even just the nomenclature, from internal comms to employee engagement, employee advocacy, right? I think social is only going to be filtered out teams are going to take over social right and not saying that social media Gotta be any less important, I think it’s gonna become more important. But I think just it’s now rather than being a standalone team, I think you’re gonna see social living inside external social living inside internal slash employee engagement. And you may have event teams now moving into virtual digital, right 100% 100%. So you have to have, in my view, the companies that are going to do that very well are going to look at events as marketing campaigns, right? Let’s put a little bit of paid on LinkedIn, if we know we’re targeting CIOs or CSOs or whoever, right, let’s, let’s run this like a campaign. The day and age when we will have a vaccine, when we will have events, I firmly believe some of the technology that will have a big impact at physical events in terms of facial recognition in terms of audience engagement, in terms of just numbers of people coming in, right. And tracking this Connor Walker fella, he visited these number of booths and you know, dot, dot, dot, what does that mean for the booths that were there for the day Overall, right and, and all that sort of stuff. So I think you’ll be able to see some pretty interesting technology applications that have been alive and working for a while now just become mainstream.

Chris Shigas
And maybe engaging not only the people at your event, but people that are unable to get your event to.

Brad Grantham
Yep. So basically, you’re just saying I should wear my mask for the rest of time.

Khaner Walker
Got a little bit of that. Yes, Brad.

Chris Shigas
Okay, great. Thank you, Khaner Walker. Thank you for joining us today. Appreciate it.

Khaner Walker
Thank you guys.

Chris Shigas
You can listen to a new episode a PR Wars every Sunday night at 8pm. Eastern on behalf of Brad Grantham and the entire PR wars team. I want to thank Khaner Walker, former global director of internal and executive communications for Lenovo, and currently Senior Director of Communications at Syneos Health and do me a favor this week in your writing. Look for one way to make your company more caring and empathetic to make your company more human. Now go get em’.

PR Wars was selected as a Top PR Podcast You Must Follow in 2020 by Feedspot.

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