Why it is time to ‘read the air’ in IC

By CIPR Inside Committee Member, Helen Chown

August 20, 2020

When an animal comes out of their home, they quite literally smell the air.  Whiskers twitching on full detection mode, they use all their senses to establish whether it is safe to come out. Can they see or hear obvious dangers – but more importantly, how does it feel out there in the big bad world right now? 

There is no doubt that thousands of years of the survival instinct are at play here. Humans are no different. How many times have you walked into a meeting or party and sensed tension, tiptoed in cautiously and made yourself smaller? Or sensing a more positive energy, body puffed up, out comes the full beam smile and a cheery hello? 

Being able to read the room can be extremely useful for us communicators – and I’d argue is even more important now as we venture out of ‘our dens’ during this period of great uncertainty.

Reading or smelling the air is a concept that is familiar in some Eastern cultures. In The Culture Map, author Erin Mayer talks about the importance of being able to read between the lines when communicating in cultures where the communication style is less direct and more subtle and nuanced. Mayer argues that the ability to go a bit deeper and use our other senses to read between the lines is a vital skill for those of us in global organisations where our colleagues span multiple cultures and communication styles. 

This can be seriously challenged in the new world of Microsoft Teams or Zoom calls.  We are not able to spot the foot tapping under the table or sense a colleague’s irritation just bristling across the room when they are unable to get a word in edgeways during a meeting. The best we can do is encourage the turning on of cameras. Sorry! I hate it and was dragged into remote working VCs kicking and screaming and very resentful about turning the camera on. However, I have had to (reluctantly) get over myself and wave the white flag for the greater good of building and maintaining now virtual relationships.  

I would also argue that for us communicators, smelling the air when faced with such uncertainty is also about sensing danger or pitfalls and changing direction – even if this means going the long way around the field. 

Months in the planning, it became clear that the messaging and approach that had initially felt sensible for a project I was working on just didn’t sit quite right with the external landscape that was changing rapidly as a result of COVID-19. 

With collective resolve, the team discussed, updated then checked again the messaging pretty much right up to the point we issued the comms. This may send shivers down the spine for any of you thinking about willingly going through approvals again… then maybe again (glutton for punishment much?!) Yes, it required us to pull some late nights and early starts, but it was important the message landed nothing less than perfectly, making sure that the tone reflected the world outside. 

Not sticking to what has been agreed on a project plan is extremely challenging for more ‘waterfall’ based project management. Milestones are either met (hooray!) or missed (wah!) However, sticking to a plan whatever life throws at it is becoming less tenable when we are faced with such uncertainty and multiple curveballs being thrown at even the best laid plans. 

It is no coincidence that more organisations are choosing to adopt an agile approach to project management. I was fortunate that the team I was working with had a united sense of purpose where what counted was that our employees received the information in the best possible way. We worked together to navigate through the uncertainty. And while yes – the sprint across the field was not always a clear run, we got through to the other side. 

So, breathe in…  take a big deep breath and smell the air. What feels the right approach, right now? 

Helen Chown is a Senior Communication Manager in the pharmaceutical sector. Connect with her on Linkedin or follow her @helenchownpr on Twitter.