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Updated by Charles Bystock on 05/11/2020

If you’re in executive leadership today, it’s safe to assume that the world is watching. It’s also a solid assumption that economic and crisis management experts will review this time period for years to come to learn what works and what doesn’t in a global pandemic. But the truth is, right now, we’re in uncharted territory. While economists are predicting the worst, some CEOs are stepping up with leadership as eloquent as Franklin D. Roosevelt. What can we learn from these leaders about what really matters during a global pandemic?

Why transparency matters in a time of crisis

Even before coronavirus, the idea of transparent leadership communications was a buzzword for enterprise organizations. Pre-COVID-19, having the perception of transparency in the workplace was praised for everything from retaining talent, to building culture, to increasing productivity. But times are different now.

Is it better, in a time of crisis, to retain that sense of open communication and transparency over going into lockdown battle mode to help keep the panic at bay? Is it better to address the elephant in the room? Crisis communication case studies may suggest initially that similar responses to the Tylenol product-tampering incident are most appropriate. But the world and business have changed dramatically since 1982 and the scope of the incident we’re responding to is much more global. Does transparency still matter in a global pandemic?

The business c-suite can take some lessons from state leaders as they struggle to stem the outbreak. Although it may be tempting to consider the locked-down approach of a totalitarian regime to stem worker misgivings, Slate’s FP suggests that is a mistake:

“In times of crisis, authoritarian responses based in high-profile displays of state power can seem attractive. But it is the far less conspicuous public-health work that seems to be separating the effective responses so far.”

An article in The Lancet Public Health suggests that the initial autocratic response to the virus was to punish whistle blowers as rumor conduits. Their early efforts shifted over the first 30 days, however; “Information politics in China undermined a rapid response to the 2019-nCoV outbreak.” The official response was to deny human-to-human transmission, suggest there was no effect on health workers, and that the virus seemed to only affect the elderly with preexisting conditions. In retrospect, this data was obviously inaccurate; for example, one-half of the patients admitted to hospitals during the early stages of the outbreak were aged 25 to 49, according to the article.

What lessons can c-suite leaders take away from the sanctioned state responses to a global pandemic? The Lancet suggests, “in building capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to outbreaks, democratic openness and competitive politics seem more asset than inadequacy”


Authenticity, leadership, and COVID-19

Forbes recently covered the crisis communication video from Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson, calling his statement, “vulnerable, humble, emotional, and hopeful.” Sorenson’s speech led with his first name only, in a candid, transparent statement about the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 on their 92-year old company. Calling the situation, “Like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” the key points of this communication included:

  • Realistic reporting of the impact of the virus on the business. With hotels operating at 75% below normal capacity, the communication stated that coronavirus has caused a, “More severe financial impact than 9/11 and the 2009 financial crisis combined.”
  • Proactive steps to control the impact, including contingency and business continuity planning; taking controllable costs out of the bottom line; a hiring freeze; and halting of all 2020 marketing initiatives.
  • Describing the personal impact on workers. Sorenson and his leadership team will draw no salary or take a 50% reduction and they’re developing a plan for employee temporary leave.
  • Concluding on a positive, uplifting note. Sorenson stated, “In my eight years on the job, I’ve never been more determined to see us through a crisis.”

The key to the success of the message was concluding with optimism that noted the signs from China that recovery is coming.


Communicating to the public moving forward

CEOs determining their crisis response in the coming months can extrapolate data from communications during the 2008 financial crisis. During the collapse of financial markets, c-suite leadership didn’t know how deep the damage would run, nor when it would end.

A study of similarities in c-suite crisis internal and external communications during the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that the majority of communications so far includes these tenets:

  • Innovation and adaptation of existing services.

Example: Panera Bread’s “contactless delivery” model.

  • Policy flexibility to improve the customer experience.

Example: Hilton’s extended expiration of rewards status points.

  • Messages to reinforce brand value.

Example: Hallmark’s “human connection” messaging by email and online.
But Crain’s suggests that the coronavirus involves an epidemiological uncertainty never experienced by executive leadership. Beyond an economic bubble lies the unknown of countless ill or dying patients and a virus whose life span we simply cannot yet predict.

Although transparency should be a guiding principle for internal and external crisis communications, too much candor in light of these extraordinary circumstances could do more harm than good. C-suite executives must communicate frequently but in ways that lead with hope and not fear.

The Windsor Group Sourcing Advisory has been assisting the c-suite during challenging times for decades. We help companies handle crisis decision-making that will strengthen your brand. Contact us for a consultation today.