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CEO Communications: Beyond Policies and Practices

March 16, 2020
By Marjorie Benzkofer

As the COVID-19 pandemic sends shockwave after shockwave through the business world, leaders are scrambling to communicate how their organization is staying in front of the crisis to maintain the health and safety of employees and customers.

But that is only half of the job before us. When confidence is shaken by so many unknowns and our employees and the public are fixated on the rapidly escalating events, effective corporate leaders must provide more than policy guidance on how to maintain the health and safety of their employees and customers.

Plenty of research shows that CEOs have tremendous social influence (and in some cases are more trusted than government leaders), particularly when CEOs speak out on issues that impact their customers and employees. This matters more than ever right now as public health experts struggle to influence the behaviors of so many individuals to achieve the collective goal of mitigating the spread of the Coronavirus.

So what does exceptional CEO communication look like when thinking beyond policies and practices? Here are five things to keep in mind and some practical examples you can use with your own teams and executives.

1. Remember the human element: You have clearly communicated policies, sending numerous emails that answer a voluminous number of questions. Your work is not done. No one has ever changed someone’s behavior or rallied a team together simply by sending a memo. Even though it may be more complex to produce, a quick video or even short podcast can be more powerful and more calming than anything else you do.

A situation like also this brings out the very best and the very worst of us as human beings, making this an important moment to be mindful of diversity and inclusion. This virus is borderless and blind to race, sex and religion. CEOs need to ensure inclusive behaviors are modeled and help extend these behaviors into the wider community.

2. This is a whole life experience: While the pandemic threatens business continuity, quarterly profits and even a global recession, for your employees it is more personal. The effective leader gives employees space and time to be caregivers first. The pandemic is creating vulnerabilities in our entire social and family support systems. It is unsettling. It is distracting. And that was before we needed to provide extra support for grandparents and an elderly neighbor or to help a child navigate an untested e-learning regimen. The traditional cycle of work during the day and home responsibilities in the evening has been thrown out the window. Employees can’t even hear the bigger tasks you are asking of them if other concerns they see as more pressing aren’t being addressed. (What happens if I have IT problems at home? What if I need to take care of my family?) Effective executives acknowledge these stresses and realities in their communication. This is a time to build cultural resilience and draw on the collective strengths of the organization. A fighting spirit will be important given the likely duration and global impact of the virus.

3. Leading is a conversation: In a time when we are faced with more questions than answers, this must be a two-way exchange. You trust your employees to execute your business. Listening to them during a crisis is just smart management. Responding to concerns from employees shows you are listening and adapting to an ever-changing situation and likely provides some of the answers you are looking for. Executives should balance basic policy guidance sent by email or posted on company intranet sites with additional forums that allow employees to ask questions and get answers. It can be hard for a single person to take on a forum like a virtual town hall when they know they don’t have all the answers. Consider bringing together an executive team of three or four leaders in a panel. It projects an even greater sense of confidence and allows the leaders to share the burden of fielding questions. Be honest. Admit when you don’t know something. Talk about what you do know.

4. Think about the larger social impact: Last year hundreds of CEO members of the Business Roundtable said their business was about more than delivering value to shareholders. Now’s the time to see that promise in action. Business can’t afford to be bystanders. They need to work together with government and industry stakeholders to develop non-partisan solutions. This is a fine line companies will tentatively explore in the coming weeks as no one wants to seem opportunistic or exploitive. Employees and customers will remember how a company acts like a civic partner in a crisis, thinking beyond the walls of its own operations to how it can help solve the larger challenges we face today and more that will come in the weeks and months ahead.

A few companies are stepping up to help customers with the things that they need the most. Hopefully businesses will lean in to address the increasing isolation of the elderly or help families struggling to meet basic household needs. Companies may take up endeavors that ensure basic household supplies are getting to those who must stay home and help reduce panic buying that limits available supplies. Others might find innovative ways to support particularly vulnerable industries, such as arts, music and theater, while also helping get their uplifting message to groups and communities that are feeling isolated. There is much to be learned from many brands who have already show tremendous creativity in supporting communities in APAC.

5. Look to the horizon: We will get through this pandemic, but the fears of many are about what will happen next – to the global economy, to the health of their own company. Every good crisis response has a Now Team and a Next Team. The Next Team is a group of leaders who are not consumed with the day-to-day emergencies of running the business. They are thinking about what comes next and how to prepare the business to not only return to operations, but also prepare it for improved success. After 9/11 the world’s global airlines had teams thinking about what pilots would say to passengers on those first airplanes that took back to the air. They were thinking about how to manage the business and protect their employees and customers through what would be many months of difficult economic pressures. If you don’t have such a team running right now, you should. Possibly most important, you should communicate to employees some of the things those teams are thinking about and working on, even when you don’t yet have all the answers. Planning for recovery and rebuilding during the crisis signals a confidence that employees will appreciate.

It is never easy to communicate when we don’t have all the answers. Those who look beyond the immediate policies and practices will better ensure their organizations emerge ready to recover in the weeks and months ahead.