Effective Crisis Leadership: How to Communicate During Coronavirus

By Katie Creaser

There’s no event in recent history that matches COVID-19, a global health crisis that has deeply impacted and upended every area of our lives. CEOs are tasked with navigating the challenges of a remote workforce, mounting public health concerns and impending financial fallout — with no tried and true playbook to run.

However, it is during times of crisis that we look to our leaders for critical information and reassurance. Relying on them to be present, calm and clear headed, we trust that they will chart the course through challenging times. As global uncertainty mounts, every business leader is called to be an active driver of crisis leadership through their communications strategy; what you say and do today will be how you’re remembered tomorrow.

Jamie Dimon communicated this well in his April letter to shareholders: “Entering into a crisis is not the time to figure out what you want to be. You must already be a well-functioning organization prepared to rapidly mobilize your resources, take your losses, and survive another day for the good of all your stakeholders.”  

 Guiding principles for CEOs to communicate with investors, employees and other key stakeholders include:

  • Communicate Early and Often: In times of crisis, we look to leadership to provide critical information, lay out a clear course of action and correct falsehoods and misinformation. More specifically, leaders should set expectations for the health of the business and navigate the course forward. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, CEOs must communicate frequently with all stakeholders and take ownership for their decisions. Timely, ongoing communication via owned channels can help to prevent the circulation of “fake news” and rumors.
  • Tell the Truth: It’s absolutely critical to commit to truth and transparency at all times, across all audiences and fight the instinct to protect employees and the public from unpleasant news or attempt to spin challenging situations to create false optimism. Stakeholders do not expect CEOs to be responsible for their happiness in times of crisis; they expect that leadership will communicate the information that they need to make informed decisions. As situations change and narratives evolve, it’s important to maintain honesty — even if that means admitting a mistake, walking back a previous statement or communicating hard truths.
  • Words Matter: CEOs are charged with protecting the health of both their employees and their business. It goes without saying that people come first and that empathy, understanding and trust are of paramount importance. However, when tasked with communicating difficult news, words matter. For example, addressing a layoff by telling employees that “we’re in this together” can come across inauthentic, tone deaf or privileged, even if the intent was empathy. Appearing overly optimistic and upbeat during earnings can look like an attempt to gloss over the real challenges that the business is facing. A good example of a measured approach can be found in Netflix’s most recent earnings script. Although a crisis moves fast, CEOs must take the time to consider the words they use and how their audience will receive/react to them.
  • Be Nimble, Control the Controllables: Effective leaders project calm and confidence by maintaining focus, and they are not distracted by the chaos and uncertainty happening in the world around them. Just as the best quarterbacks in football can identify one or two variables in a team’s defense to know what play to call and how to execute it, great leaders understand what factors most impact their ability to achieve goals, and which ones are distractions that they should ignore or may be outside of their ability to influence even if they wanted to. CEOs should focus their core messaging on the areas of the business that are within their control and use data as proof points that model and predict what may happen next. Doing so also conveys a sense of calm and control that is comforting and motivating to others.
  • Captain the Ship: CEOs set the tone for the entire business, and the C-suite reaction to COVID-19 will be remembered far beyond the next few months. This means that presence matters. Remember that during this time, what you do means just as much as what you say. As a communications strategy is built, CEOs should “captain the ship” and ask themselves:
      • How do I want to be remembered when this crisis has ended? How do I want my company to be remembered?
      • What’s the one thing (they key takeaway) I want the public to hear/know? How can I adjust that message for different audiences?
      • How do I want my employees to approach the challenges that lie ahead (e.g., optimism, determination, decisiveness, resilience)?
      • What do my employees really need from me at this time so that they can approach these challenges?
      • What’s the best medium for my message (e.g., livecast, email, video, all-hands or personal meetings, media etc.)? How should that medium evolve as my messaging shifts?
      • What’s the most effective way to retain corporate culture during this crisis?

    There’s no handbook on crisis leadership during COVID-19. There are no best practices, past events or case studies that will definitively guide CEOs to anticipate what comes next. However, the tried and true rules of crisis communication will always apply. A nimble corporate communication strategy built on the principles of honesty, authenticity and confidence will be remembered favorably in the days, weeks and months ahead.

    If you have additional questions about your communications strategy during this unprecedented time, please reach out.