Communicating Through the Coronavirus Crisis

 

By Paul A. Argenti
April 23, 2020

In fast-moving and uncertain situations, leaders face questions they may not even have answers to. But communicating early and often with key stakeholders during a crisis is of essence. Even if you’re still trying to understand the extent of a problem, you should put yourself in your constituents’ shoes to understand their anxiety, and be as transparent as you can.

As we engage with others in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it is advisable to take the following steps:

  1. CREATE A TEAM FOR CENTRALIZED COMMUNICATION

In an emergency, you need a crisis-response team. It should comprise five to seven people, including a member of the leadership team, someone from corporate communications, a human resources executive and an expert in the area of concern. This team should:

  • Meet regularly to monitor the situation as it evolves;
  • Be the main source of information about the crisis;
  • Give regular updates to key constituencies;
  • Share what you know, what you don’t know and your sources of information;
  • Be succinct.
  1. COMMUNICATE WITH EMPLOYEES

The company should aim to demystify the situation and provide hope to its employees. Studies have shown that leaders, in particular, have a special role in reducing employee anxiety. In my study of crisis communication after 9/11, many employees described how important it was to hear the voice of their leader, whether live or through email, phone messages or social media. To communicate with employees, organizations should:

  • Post information regularly in a highly visible location — physical or virtual
  • Describe how decisions were made about issues such as travel and working from home
  • Communicate at least every other day
  • Try to provide timely information rather than waiting until you know all the answers
  1. COMMUNICATE REGULARLY WITH CUSTOMERS

Customers, require a different approach than employees. In particular, you should:

  • Focus on what’s important to the customer
  • Provide relief when possible
  • Empathize rather than trying to create selling opportunities.
  1. REASSURE SHAREHOLDERS

The coronavirus epidemic has turned a bull market into a potential recession. Publicly listed companies have a special responsibility to communicate the impact of the virus on their operations. Joanne Wong, a senior managing director at FTI Consulting in Hong Kong, offers this advice for handling investor relations:

  • Be transparent in communicating near-term challenges
  • Use the crisis as an opportunity to reinforce the corporation’s long-term fundamentals
  • Communicate what you’re doing about the problem

In addition, you should develop communication plans around your annual meeting, including setting up webcasts for shareholders.

  1. BE PROACTIVE WITH COMMUNITIES

Approach a crisis as a time to enhance relationships with the local communities in which you operate by:

  • Providing resources such as cleaning supplies or food for those in quarantine
  • Providing information to the local media to help to calm the communities while also enhancing your organization’s credibility
  • Providing transparency about what is happening within the company.

When dealing with uncertainty, leaders need to look at communication from the perspective of their audience and empathize rather than fear doing the wrong thing. This requires companies to reveal as much as they can about sensitive information and to be vigilant about correcting mistakes without worrying about the repercussions.

Copyright 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

Topics: Leadership

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