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Leaders are forged in times of crisis. The same is true for businesses and business leaders. How CEOs respond to COVID-19 will shape our loyalty for some time to come. Handle this well and we’ll remain fervent customers. Handle it poorly, and we’ll walk.
Over the past 7 weeks, my firm has collected and analyzed hundreds of statements from a wide range of businesses.
Some are getting it right, and some have missed the mark entirely. Out of my analysis, five key themes emerged that demonstrate what leadership looks like in this moment.
1. Lead with empathy
Customers and shareholders alike will be quick to dismiss or worse, become vocal against a company if they fail to be empathetic about the crisis we're facing. Leaders don’t have permission to talk about their businesses until they first address the health and well-being of their customers and importantly, their employees. In communications about service delays or changes, businesses can’t pass go without acknowledging the impact that those changes or delays have on all of us. Statements that lead with what the company is doing instead of what its customers are experiencing leave customers to assume the company is out of touch.
Who did it well?
Kevin Johnson, CEO of Starbucks
"As I write to you on this beautiful spring day in Seattle, I am reflecting on the fragility of the human experience. Six months ago, who could have predicted the world would be united in a common cause: overcoming the human impacts of COVID-19 – the loss of life, feelings of isolation and loneliness, concerns about health and fears of economic uncertainty. But here we are, navigating this together. During times of adversity, values are tested. I remain inspired by your resilience and am optimistic that together we can overcome this challenge. Words cannot capture the immense pride and gratitude I have for you, my Starbucks partners, as you demonstrate support for one another, your customers and the thousands of communities we serve."
2. Establish a swim lane and reason for being there.
All successful communications about COVID-19 and any relief measures are grounded in the business' reason for being. Simply put: the best communication keeps the company in its swim lane. So, it's crucial companies connect all efforts to what customers know them for, especially if an announcement is going to seem like a pivot from their core business.
Who did it well?
Mike Roman, Chairman and CEO 3M
"Thank you to all the healthcare workers and first responders at the front lines. Today we're announcing additional details about 3M's capacity increases of N95 respirators, strong measures to combat price gouging and counterfeiting, and new partnerships to help protect our healthcare workers."
3. Be brutally honest with bad news
No one wants to deliver bad news. Nevertheless, it must be done. During times of crisis good communication is even more important. Good news must travel fast, but bad news must travel faster. And while many of us have a natural instinct to soften the blow, doing so can give the impression that a company is not taking the situation seriously enough. The best communications are direct, sincere, and upfront when delivering tough messages.
Who did it well?
Arne Sorenson, Marriott International CEO
"COVID-19 is like nothing we've ever seen before. For a company that's 92-years-old — that's borne witness to the Great Depression, World War II, and many other economic and global crises — that's saying something. But here are the facts. COVID-19 is having a more severe and sudden financial impact on our business than 9/11 and the 2009 financial crisis — combined...In most markets, our businesses is already running 75% below normal levels… The restrictions on travel and required social distancing is having an immediate impact by depressing demand for our hotels."
4. Symbolic gestures matter
There is huge power in symbolic gestures. It doesn’t need to be grand, just meaningful. It can be as simple as waiving fees for those impacted financially by the crisis, or as sweeping as a CEO pledge to take his or her salary to zero and protect all jobs during this time. Symbols go a long way during a time like this, but only if customers know and understand them. Companies should package up one thing they’re doing that no one else is. This isn’t to say they should ONLY help in one way but burying their biggest splash in a laundry list risks customers glossing right over it.
Who did it well?
Dan Glaser, CEO Marsh & McLennan
“I want to say to all of you that while we are in the thick of this global pandemic, your job is secure. There will be no counting of sick days or vacation days until things return to normal.”
5. Tone matters now more than ever
Tone is make or break during a time like this. No one wants to hear robotic, corporate speak during a global crisis, even from a CEO who might well be used to being very scripted. It’s time for companies to communicate in a personal, authentic and vulnerable way. We’re in this together and communications should come across that way.
Who did it well?
Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock
"When I originally sat down to write this letter, I was in my office, thinking about how to describe the events of 2019 and what BlackRock achieved last year. Today that seems a distant reality. BlackRock’s offices globally are nearly empty and instead, I write to you in isolation from home, like millions of other people. Since January, the coronavirus has overtaken our lives and transformed our world, presenting an unprecedented medical, economic and human challenge. The implications of the coronavirus outbreak for every nation and for our clients, employees and shareholders are profound, and they will reverberate for years to come."
We are all moving fast to adapt and change in this time. CEOs who lead us through this will be remembered for a long time to come. And, in order to resonate, they can't just focus on what it is they want to communicate, they also need to focus on what their audience will hear.
Lee Carter is the president and partner of maslansky + partners, a language strategy firm based on the idea that "it's not what you say, it's what they hear" and the author of "Persuasion: Convincing Others When Facts Don’t Seem to Matter." Follow her on Twitter on @lh_carter.