When the pandemic struck, Unipart Group immediately reconfigured its communications to bring together all 15 specialists from across its operations, which stretch from manufacturing to logistics to consultancy, as one team, led by director of corporate affairs Frank Nigriello.
He explains: ‘If we didn’t have the team, then we didn’t have the resource to do the work. We are a group of companies. At the corporate level, there’s three of us and at divisional level, there’s probably two or three. I pooled the resource for all those individual units, and a few marketeers who are really marcomms, together as one team for the very first time.
‘We got everybody online, and I said that I wanted us to work together as a team. We’ve got a lot to do. We’re going to divvy up the stuff. We’ve got to interpret messages for your particular areas, but we’ve also got to create generic messages. We’re going to treat this as a crisis.’
Nigriello then implemented the gold, silver, bronze crisis procedures in which every member had been trained. He explains: ‘I said I’ll be gold, Louise [Thompson, director of communications, Unipart Logistics] will be silver and Jo [Matson, internal comms manager] and Alistair Drummond [group communications manager] will be bronze. We’re going to use that structure and that working pattern, which is a crisis management tool, to deal with this because it is not going to be a short-term thing.’
But while some members of the team had rehearsed playbooks for crisis situations, he concedes that they had never ‘practiced’ as a cohesive unit. ‘The idea about building a playbook is that you don’t do too much thinking. You know the playbook. You react quickly. But for this we had no playbook,’ says Nigriello. ‘We had a group, I always smile when I say this, we called it COBRA, and we met online every morning at eight. It involved the most senior people in the business, who reviewed what was going on and then we broke that down. More than anything, speed is essential. We [met] so we could share information really quickly and make decisions really quickly.
‘But it wasn’t enough to be fast. It was the depth of thinking that was needed. It was about bringing together specialists from comms, health and safety, operations… getting a clear view of what needed to be done, and then getting any barriers that existed out of the way.’
Oxford-based Unipart set out three priorities from the outset: to keep its people safe, to keep its customers safe and to keep its processes operational. This approach thrust internal communications into the spotlight as around 5,000 employees from Unipart’s 7,000 workforce would continue to work onsite during the pandemic.
But, at the same time, each customer’s needs were different. Kimberley Clarke, for example, faced operational challenges at the outset, as the public stockpiled toilet paper and supermarket shelves and supplies were cleared, while Waterstones transformed almost overnight from a high street bookstore chain to an online business. Indeed, online orders rose from an average 2,000 per day to 28,000 units which required Unipart to reconfigure its distribution centre and double the size of the packing facility, while maintaining social distancing. And Three Mobile, a customer since 2003, opted to retrieve all its stock from 320 high street stores in just four days, while distributing laptops to retail employees so they could manage customer service after its Mumbai-based call centre was forced to close.
NHS Supply Chain is also a major Unipart customer, which meant that its operations attracted the attention of politicians and the media early in the crisis, particularly around the supply of pandemic PPE, even though this was handled by another logistics company. The communications team subsequently had to manage complex relationships between Number 10, the NHS Supply Chain and the Department of Health and Social Care.
Unipart also responded to the Ventilator Challenge. ‘We got a call from the Cabinet Office asking if we could participate, and within ten days, we had a prototype,’ adds Nigriello. ‘We pulled together the best resource within the group to work out how to build a ventilator from scratch. None of them had ever built one before, but we were one of only five that were seen to be viable for productions by the National Audit Office.
‘But while those guys were making stuff, we were getting press calls every day. Where are you on this? What’s happening with this? Are you in production? I’ve been a journalist: you work with a limited understanding of what you can grasp at the time and then you ask questions. So, I am sympathetic, and I understand but it is difficult when you can’t talk about it. Usually, we want to tell our story, chapter and verse on what we’re doing and why we’re wonderful. But it’s not like that when you’re working with the government.
‘We’d been restricted by the Cabinet Office as to what we could say, but we also had the media interest in PPE, which was really difficult because we weren’t responsible for that, and we were restricted by the government as to what we could say. So, from an external point of view, there were unseen, unpliant pressures that we had to respond to.’
The need to keep Unipart’s people safe as they worked to support the national effort meant that much of the communications team’s work focused on encouraging behavioural changes in the workplace, but also in their colleagues’ home environments. After all, their work to keep people safe in the workplace could be undermined by colleagues who, outside working hours, neglected usual practices, such as social distancing and hand washing.
‘We did lots of stuff about behaviours at work. Safety behaviour. We completely changed the way we operated. But we also focused on behaviours at home because you bring the virus back into the workplace. So, you have this extra territorial role of saying When you go home, don’t do this,’ explains Nigriello.
Changing operational procedures in the workplace brought their own challenges. Introducing a one-way system in buildings may sound trivial but, according to Nigriello, it is no mean feat. ‘When you tell people that they can’t walk down that corridor, but they need to go upstairs and around because it is now a one-way system, they look at you Like what? We screened guests at receptions before they could come into our buildings, and, in some cases, we introduced temperature monitoring. These were big things,’ he says.
‘We had to communicate really, really well. When visitors were invited to our sites, for whatever reason, you start the communications there. You can’t surprise them with it at the door… it’s about thinking about the whole journey.’
Many of Unipart’s staff work in warehouses, with lots of space, which makes orchestrating social distancing somewhat easier. Offices are more challenging because people are usually seated together, and, if they are placed too far apart, they need to talk in loud voices which can spread droplets.
‘We had Perspex screens on tables to protect people. The lengths we went to were significant. We had to redo staff restaurants and rest areas. But people stepped up and they did it. Everybody understood,’ adds Nigriello. ‘We learned through this to be very careful. You must avoid mistakes because mistakes cost lives; that’s the reality. People, because of negligence or because we did something incorrectly, could infect others. They might go home and infect elderly parents. They might infect people with underlying conditions. These people could end up on ventilators; this isn’t just getting a cold.’
The communications team needed to draw upon its ‘persuasive skills’ to demonstrate to their colleagues that these actions were designed for their benefit and safety. They needed to comply and not to break rules, such as obeying floor markings or one-way systems, because it was more expedient. ‘We need you to follow the rules. And we need to write and create materials that are persuasive, compelling and simple,’ adds Nigriello. ‘That’s a skill. That’s what we get paid for.’
But, as he points out, Unipart’s communications team – like so many of their contemporaries – also embarked upon a huge amount of upskilling. ‘How many of us were as conversant previously with as many platforms as we have used? Zoom. Google. Microsoft Teams. There has been a fantastic amount of fast learning. If you think about the professional upskilling that has accompanied writing complex briefs, writing persuasively to people to keep them calm, talking about new behaviours. How do you change behaviour just by writing a brief and using new technologies?’ Nigriello ponders.
For the communications team, ‘it’s about innovation, ideas, people stepping up, taking risks, using new tools… it’s never been a more important time for communicators. It’s never been a more taxing time.’
Indeed, the team’s output rose almost 200 per cent during the initial 20-week period, as it produced more than 50 management and employee briefs, 40 graphics and two new weekly newsletters. Every announcement by the government had to communicated in a way that Unipart’s people could both understand and find relevant. ‘A lot of afternoon conferences [by ministers] raised more questions than they answered, so you had to interpret legislation. Then you have the whole piece around morale and engaging, people working long shifts on site or even longer shifts at home (or, as my colleagues say, living from work). These things are fundamental; they are the bread and butter of what we do,’ explains Nigriello.
‘We’re always trying to engage people with communication that is two-way, but it’s exacerbated when there is stress in the environment because people are working from home. They’re trying to deal with the kids. They’re trying to deal with technology. They may not have an adequate place to work because they didn’t need an office in their home before now. They haven’t seen their colleagues in months face-to-face, and we love face-to-face. We have to think: these folks are in their houses and they haven’t seen their colleagues in months. How do they feel?’
Nigriello believes that, as communicators, he and his team need to keep giving permission to colleagues to talk about their feelings, to allow them to say that they were stressed or to share how they are overcoming challenges to their mental health. ‘We did a number of pieces where we had leaders talk about mental health online in short videos. One woman was talking about not being able to see her father, or to touch him, and that it was his birthday. She said how depressing that was. But we did these in a way that was positive – if you can call it positive – and that people could relate to, because they were all going through it.’
But of all the extraordinary challenges which the Unipart communications team faced, of which is Nigriello most proud? Singling out just one is difficult. ‘There were so many achievements. It’s not about one single output, but a multiple of small things that were done consistently to reinforce confidence and keep people safe,’ he says.
‘But probably the biggest output that we had was the 60-page playbook on being safe in the office, in the operational centres and in the warehouses, because it was an exercise in interpretation. We took what were difficult, dry, health and safety regulations and government regulations and transformed them into something that was easily accessible with downloadable materials, written in plain English in a persuasive way and in a way that could be updated regularly as regulations changed.’
The Roadmap to Return handbook was a ‘massive repository’ of documents. If somebody needed a screening form for a visiting client, they knew where to search. But it also challenged the communications team to think about the ways in which documents would be used. If warehouses needed posters to remind colleagues of safety measures, how would they be downloaded? How could they be printed? Where did they needed to be positioned? ‘You have to tell people all this stuff,’ says Nigriello. ‘Then you need to integrate this information with the digital communication cells [business intelligence boards] that are used at every site. Teams hold meetings around these every day, so what are the important key metrics? Then you need to talk to the technology guys about designing the web interface that it is touchscreen. You think through every level. We produced a phenomenal piece of work, that is used every day and is constantly updated. It is a living document.’
But, like so many communicators, Nigriello thrives in a crisis. ‘I’m always saying to my team, this is where we earn our money. We do all the stuff when it’s good news and business as usual, but we’re the firefighters that are called in when the fan has been hit and you need to fix it internally or externally,’ he says. ‘They all stepped up… the creativity, the insights, the things they delivered, their ethics. It was a fantastic, coherent team. Without these people, without the professionalism and the commitment that they have shown, we would have been able to do very little.’