May 6, 2020

Keeping a Company-Wide Transformation On-Track During the COVID-19 Crisis 

by Scott Wells, CEO, Clear Channel Outdoor Americas


The past weeks have taught me management lessons I wish I never had to learn. 

There is change you plan for—like a business transformation, a new product line or new marketplace dynamics—and changes forced upon you that you must make the best of—like the current COVID-19 crisis. COVID-19 is the biggest unexpected change I’ve ever seen and we’ve all been forced to adapt—both personally and professionally—at a scale and speed that’s almost unimaginable. 

My company was going through an enormous transformation as our industry, out-of-home (OOH) media, looked to capitalize on new tech and digital capabilities that have reimagined our medium’s possibilities. We’d made tremendous progress, including having our best year in a dozen in 2019. And then, COVID-19 hit. 

Given so many people nationwide are living in areas where movements are restricted, the OOH industry was quickly impacted. Managing any company through these extraordinary times is a challenge, so I wanted to share a few observations from the front lines of how, as CEO, I’ve led our teams to keep employees engaged and keep our business performing.

Engaging people through confidence and humility

This pandemic is hard to grasp, it’s personal and it’s scary. So, before we can fully make progress again, I need to help my employees manage the human dimensions as best I can. This means communicating honestly about the impact COVID-19 is having, or may have, on our business while reinforcing my confidence in our people and our medium. 

CCOA has a significant corporate and operational presence in New York City, the “epicenter” of the coronavirus pandemic in the US.  In the early days of the crisis, and before the CDC established COVID protocols, my leadership team and I were faced with having to manage people and an organization in an environment where there were more questions by the day than answers.  

As the severity of the situation became more apparent, we quickly adopted interim procedures for sanitation, began working on protocols for a work from home test day to “kick the tires” in the event we would need to shift to a more permanent work from home environment down the road, and began informing staff of next steps.  As it turned out, our NY office employees did not return to the office following the “test day” and have been working from home ever since, with our other US office locations shifting to a work from home environment shortly thereafter.  Needless to say, our shift to “work from home” presented a unique set of challenges for a business that generates its revenue “outside the home.”

It’s critical that, as CEO, I’m decisive. But it’s equally important that employees witness decisive actions from other leaders in the organization. To do this, our leadership team is aligned and empowered to communicate to the people on the front lines. One of the ways we tackled this was in our early use of video conference to replace our largest annual physical conference scheduled for early April. We shifted from a two-day offsite to a two-hour virtual one for over 140 people—our Sales Operations leader led the charge to great effect. Seeing everyone’s faces lifted spirits and the content was outstanding.
 

“You’ve got to go into a time like this and remain cognizant of keeping your great talent as you’ll need to be ready to ramp up as shelter in place orders lift.” 


Our business realities were such that, while keeping the long game in mind, we needed to find immediate savings. At CCOA, we consolidated our people announcements into one call with more than 1,000 participants. We approached these communications with humility and honesty about the lack of visibility into when the market is going to pick back up—but that we were fully focused on preserving the great capability we’d been building prior to COVID-19. The way we struck this balance ranged from temporary salary reductions to temporary furloughs with benefits. No one liked the fact of shared sacrifice across all our colleagues, but people appreciated the clear messaging of the reasons why and the principles driving those choices. As we get more visibility to the long term impact we may have to reassess, but by moving fast initially we were able to quickly shift focus to our customers vs. internal worries.

Tackling the challenges of an invisible enemy

A CEO must challenge the team, put a vision forward and hire and motivate the right people to achieve it. I still must do that; but now, in addition, I have to actively focus on keeping it going. An important part of my role has been to keep employees focused on business priorities, staying accountable under these new circumstances and reminding them to continue their focus on excellence both personally and professionally. 

Staying on track also means helping our teams develop new tools and plans to propel our business forward. Our sales force continues to do business and help brands shift their messaging to reflect sentiments of gratitude toward employees and consumers as well as for those on the front lines of the crisis who can’t “stay home.” 

One fundamental challenge we faced early on was communicating with our customers about the impacts to audience delivery resulting from shelter-in-place orders. Legitimately, our clients were looking for sophisticated insights and quick action in response to these changes. Because of our investments in mobile location data solutions underpinning our media, we had the ability to start working with our partners to understand near real-time changes and trends in mobility across markets. 

You didn’t need data to tell you traffic was down, but we learned it wasn’t as dismal in some markets as others thought. Meanwhile, there were many research companies offering their take—using wildly different metrics, with wildly different audience impact. And while our industry relies on an independent third party for shared currency, our focus was on protecting our future and our partners’ future with an additional point of view and further clarity.

The net is that our investment in data and insights during the good times has enabled us to help our clients see the impact of COVID-19 on their campaigns in this challenging time—a critical outcome.

Opportunity is still “out” there

There’s always opportunity. Even this crisis has revealed a silver lining, if we’re open to it. 

Our teams have developed stronger bonds, and this will positively impact our business going forward. Maintaining team dynamics is challenging now, so getting creative about keeping our connectivity has been a priority. Some of our U.S. markets are hosting virtual meetups, happy hours and going the extra mile with virtual walks to help maintain a personal connection with colleagues.

One core initiative we launched is our #OpenforBusiness campaign, where we are acknowledging our small and medium business clients that are open for healthcare delivery, pharmacy services, groceries and other essentials. By giving them bonus exposure, we’re deepening our partnerships and providing important information when consumers are spending more than usual on the precautions our current environment requires. 

When we get back to the office, things will be different. But I’m certain we’re going to come out of this with a dynamic business that will meet the high demand as brands look to reengage with consumers upon “emergence.” And I believe some of the bonds and new habits we’ve formed working and communicating with one another through this crisis will make us into a stronger company and an even more desirable place for our employees to work. 


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 Posted: May 2020