Communicating Leadership During COVID-19

Related Expertise: Leadership Development, Corporate Finance and Strategy

Communicating Leadership During COVID-19

By Maggie Schear and David Young

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has severely constrained economic and social activity in all countries, creating a defining challenge for corporate leaders as they make plans to restart their companies and value chains, reengage their workforce and stakeholders, and renew the confidence of customers and markets. Much hinges on leaders’ ability to function as active, authentic, and trusted communicators. Events will unfold quickly, and surprises will be inevitable. Missteps will be costly.

Consequently, as companies map their actions over the next months, the underlying communication plans must be agile and capable of dealing with uncertainty. Leaders need cohesive, scenario-based communication and engagement strategies designed to maintain flexibility and to maximize their companies’ credibility with stakeholders through the ups and downs of rebuilding. 

We believe that the most effective strategies will focus on achieving several objectives (shown schematically in the accompanying exhibit):

  • Consistently reinforce corporate purpose and its meaning in the post-crisis period, to offer a long-term perspective, inspire the organization, and create continuity in messaging, while retaining flexibility in how to get there.
  • Anchor on communication principles that reflect core values, serve as guideposts for decision making, and establish a uniformly high standard for effectiveness and quality, to ensure that leaders consistently keep their big-picture objectives in mind.
  • Employ a creative platform and approach to engage the hearts and minds of key stakeholders, moving people emotionally to drive explicit action that supports recovery, renewal, and change for the future.
  • Prepare detailed communication plans against various scenarios, each with critical messages and custom content for key stakeholders and investors, including guidance on how to choose the most appropriate predeveloped module to deal with emerging circumstances.

These scenarios should closely match the anticipated realities involved in fully bringing the business back online, including the many hard calls that leaders may need to make along the way and the significant behavior changes that employees, suppliers, consumers, and other stakeholders must adopt. Thinking all of this through in advance will allow leaders to respond to changing dynamics quickly and with confidence, and will give leaders foresight and depth in their connections with stakeholders, thereby reinforcing trust and confidence.

We also believe that the following principles—or a similar set of principles customized to reflect a particular organization’s unique values and context—are essential to shape the tone, content, and positioning of communications from leadership:

  • What we want employees and other stakeholders to feel: 
    • Solidarity, as we are in this together and no one is alone
    • Trust in the business, its purpose, and its potential 
    • Confidence in the company’s leadership and its ability to manage risk
  • How we want to communicate to achieve these goals:
    • Emphasize continuity with a shared past and with shared values that won't change during this tumultuous time.
    • Use down-to-earth language that shows humanity and compassion as well as professionalism.
    • Deploy nuanced messaging for relevance across different mediums and stakeholders.
    • Provide clarity and resources as the situation evolves, keeping stakeholders informed and putting updates in proper context.
    • Set realistic expectations for the future, so people can prepare mentally, financially, and emotionally. 
    • Understand the actions, beliefs, and aligned efforts that we want to drive, and ensure that we repeatedly reinforce these critical themes.

Although the months ahead are unpredictable, the intention of leaders to build back better is not. Executives face a critical agenda of tasks to reengage their workforce and stakeholders and to renew the confidence of their customers and markets. Using a communication strategy anchored in purpose and proactively built to respond quickly and effectively to different potential scenarios can help leaders remain effective champions of the future.

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