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CEO Communications During the COVID-19 Recovery

April 29, 2020
By Diane Poelker

The scale and duration of the COVID-19 crisis has forced CEO communications into new territory, pushing the divides between professional and personal matters and looking more holistically at the needs of business and society. But, as the public lens shifts from crisis response to navigating the long-term strategy for social and economic recovery, CEOs and other leaders face a new challenge: to authentically set the tone for how we’ll emerge in a new normal.

New research from FleishmanHillard’s TRUE Global Intelligence practice shows the pandemic has drastically reshaped stakeholder expectations of our societal institutions. Recovery is not about returning to the pre-pandemic world. But, instead, uniting internal and external stakeholders – your employees, partners, regulators, customers, consumers and investors – in a new vision of success.

In the recovery period, visible and engaged leadership voices are critical to providing the meaning that creates a sense of normalcy, order and grounding that moves us forward. CEOs must convey how the crisis has created change, but also what continues to endure from the pre-crisis norms. They must strike a careful balance between pushing toward the opportunities that lie ahead, and ensuring the confidence and safety of employees, customers and communities in localized instances of COVID-19 resurgence.

Authentic internal and external communications need to be regular and relevant – a seemingly daunting task for reaching a wide array of audiences. Nevertheless, some core communication principles will prevail:

Start with empathy.

The social and economic impact of the coronavirus is complex and continuing to evolve. It’s not safe to assume all stakeholders share the same experiences and changing values. When communicating your business’ re-opening or return to work plan, consider how the messages appear to internal and external stakeholder audiences. Don’t assume that because communities are open for business, stakeholders will support profits replacing people.

Stand with customers and employees.

Reopening will come with conditions and operational inconveniences to help ensure safety. Model the safe and positive behaviors you’re asking of employees and customers. If masks are required, or working from home is encouraged, lean into opportunities where you can participate and champion change through leadership behavior.

Share what grounds you. 

In times of uncertainty, it’s important CEOs remain focused on where they can have the most impact. Some stakeholders won’t know how to articulate their needs and will seek clarity. Leaders are positioned to ground their organizations for success by balancing the comfort that some things can endure, with the recognition that other structures can be transformed – sometimes for the better – because of the way our society has changed.

Bravely look forward.

No one can predict the future, but leaders will be required to provide a sense of direction, punctuated by action. How will your company, industry or region build toward success in a changed operating environment and still deliver on its purpose? Lend certainty by articulating a vision for near-term success and the characteristics, roles and tasks needed to lead out of crisis.

Provide evidence that change is tangible and impactful.

Even in an era of individual uncertainty, rapidly shifting business developments and quick news cycles, some themes will remain timeless. Look to these questions when providing evidence that supports positive progress and drives reputation in the “new normal” narrative:

  • Innovation: The restricted environment has given rise to new challenges and compelled change. How has this change led to new product and service innovations? What new customer challenges arose out of the COVID-19 response that your business was uniquely qualified to serve? How can these innovations contribute to economic recovery?
  • Workplace culture: Social distancing and technology have spurred new workplace practices but the need for employee engagement remains the same. What workplace cultural tenets have spurred new practices, better ways of problem-solving and collaboration and support for the workers?
  • Living legacy: In a crisis, purpose-driven organizations unite and rise to the challenge. What corporate changes are emblematic of who you are and your track record of doing good? What structural changes have you made to improve crisis management? Where have you broken down sacred silos to do what needed to be done?
  • Greater good: COVID-19 brought businesses, governments and NGOs together to create solutions for public health; as the response shifts to economic recovery, the greater good will remain a central point in the narrative. How has this experience formed alliances with unlikely collaborators to do good? How are you balancing community need with core business needs? How are contributing to the economic recovery?