During turbulent times, people turn to leaders for solutions, guidance, understanding, and
vision. The actions leaders and their teams are taking now will determine their company’s vitality and health.
Having worked with C-level executives on their stakeholder communication strategy for many years, I believe now is a crucial time for clear, honest and thoughtful communication. Now is the time to speak up because those who choose to be silent will not be part of the conversations in the future.
According to a Kantar barometer, 75% of consumers in a sample of over 35.000 globally agree that avoiding a discussion about the crisis itself means opting out of a very important, relevant discussion.
“But how should we communicate when we don’t have the answers?!”
The first thing to recognize and accept, is none of us have the all-encompassing, golden solution. This is a rapidly-changing, uncertain situation, where questions change daily - that’s why leaders should not wait to craft the perfect answer. If they do, by the time they are ready to share their thoughts, they risk redundancy. Keeping in mind each stakeholder has specific concerns, leaders should lean towards addressing these questions separately, across different mediums. Instead of generalized, watered-down messages, leaders can adopt a “FAQ” mindset and cover a range of topics in specific, targeted messages.
Great communication displays not only openness but adaptability: a trait that many leaders exercise in their daily lives. Some may perceive this as a sign of vulnerability. In reality, it’s the opposite. Communicating the decision-making process during crises is a sign of strength. A sign that companies are strong enough to not only outlive this crisis but to also thrive afterward.
We have already seen major business and state leaders alike openly discuss how COVID-19 has impacted their countries, businesses, employees, suppliers, and customers. They were transparent about their struggles and efforts and vulnerable in their delivery.
A very fitting quote from The Economist’s daily newsletter
A crucial approach to business
Functioning independently from any business model, there is an essential approach that no one can neglect, especially now: running operations in an H2H manner. Throughout my marketing career and the years running Connected Circles, I realized that Human to Human is an essential component of strong businesses.
Leaders who have also understood this, have firmly changed their behavior and approach. They lead with empathy, honesty, and positivity because they grasp the size of their impact. At the same time, they address all their stakeholders, while enabling their employees to communicate. In an H2H world, they recognize that staying silent comes at a high price.
As a result of truly valuing people and without expecting anything in return, leaders around the world chose to take rapid action and help others in need. Whether it was producing hand sanitizer instead of spirits, or face masks instead of clothes, these leaders acknowledged their social responsibility.
Above: Delta Airline's CEO proves how companies can find personalized ways of helping that are based on their already existing resources and expertise
They were right in doing so - as a recent Edelman Trust Barometer Report attests, 71% of respondents agreed they will lose trust forever in a brand if they perceive the company is putting profit over people.
Communicate. Internally and externally.
Today's successful leaders not only drive business (through very hard decisions!) but they also do two vital activities: they and their organizations engage in purposeful action by showing care and acting to find working solutions, and by having transparent dialogues with their employees.
Currently, we do not live in a One or the Other situation: both types of communication and engagement are vital differentiators between businesses. And it goes without saying - everybody, from internal to external stakeholders, needs clarity, reassurance, and understanding.
Here is what leaders can do to reassure their stakeholders:
State the facts on a current basis (both about the state of the company and COVID-19's impact on business and people),
Outline steps taken externally and internally to address the situation, and
(internally) Arrange a safe working environment, in case employees perform work that they cannot do from home. Contribute to optimal work from home arrangements (we Ubered home our beloved screens and office chairs!) and set up check-ups often, to ensure teams feel together and aligned.
Naturally, leaders will have specific communication styles. Whether it is recording video updates (both for LinkedIn and intranet) or creating dedicated, collaborative channels with employees, leadership and communication should go hand in hand.
Above: Marriott International's CEO took his message to a video, in which he acknowledged the complexity of the new business situation, stated the facts and reassured all his associates that management is proactively responding to the crisis
Above: Danone's CEO and chairman shared a short and efficient video to all stakeholders, clearly outlining the Danone action plan. He later went on French television news to offer more details and to answer questions.
Update: Leaders make the most of LinkedIn features
One thing I have been increasingly noticing on LinkedIn in the past week is leaders publishing longer-form content pieces. And this makes perfect sense: LinkedIn articles allow people to share more thoughts than in a regular post, while also embedding more rich media. At the same time, while posts may get harder to find as a person continues to be active on LinkedIn, articles have their separate space on LinkedIn, so their lifespan is significantly higher.
Here are two examples published recently that I enjoyed reading:
Above: Headspace's CEO has detailed in an article how his company (a mindfulness app) is helping thousands of health workers for free through meditation programs, while also developing opportunities for teachers to learn how to better guide students and parents in these times.
Above: Starbucks' CEO adapted in a LinkedIn article his letter to the company's US partners (all the employees working in physical cafés). In this article, he has offered reassurances to the staff while also outlining the company's next steps. This is already the third article he posted in relation to COVID-19 and its impact on business.
Above: Marriott International's CEO offered another lesson in leadership in the online sphere by publishing an article addressed to various Marriott stakeholders. The letter presented the alternatives that customers have for their booked trips, while also providing details about a project aiming to offer hotel stays for healthcare professionals in the US.
What to avoid
Leaders in positions of power and influence who remain silent will give the impression they deny the responsibility that comes with it. This is ultimately a sizable risk to take: consumers might avoid their companies, products, and services altogether, opting for others instead.
Nevertheless, leaders should stay away from vague umbrella messages. Stakeholders don’t need generic motivational speeches ending with #ThoughtsAndPrayers. Their expectations are different: real, actionable steps and clear, honest communication.
It’s never too late to exercise clear communication - internally and externally. Especially in challenging times.
And if you are worried that you haven't been very active so far on LinkedIn or your followers' count is not in the order of thousands, Visa's CEO demonstrated that good content focused on company-wide action plans has the potential to reach a quarter of a million people.
Can you afford silence?
At Connected Circles, we help purpose-driven companies and their leaders communicate with key stakeholders in the digital age. After analyzing thousands of CEO posts on LinkedIn, we understand which content engages the most and why. Tap into our knowledge and start meaningful and relevant conversations today.
A small note from me: each week I'll update this article with powerful examples from global leaders. Make sure to save this post so we can all learn together from the very best.