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How to Communicate Meaningfully During a Pandemic


April 1, 2020

Eve-Laurier

Ève Laurier, General Manager, Edelman Montréal

Sylvain Lafrance and I were looking forward to sharing our respective stories about crisis management at an Executive Education HEC Montréal seminar this past March 25 and 26. But, as we all know, things took another turn as the COVID-19 crisis mounted to unprecedented proportions. In this context, communications skills are more crucial than ever for government leaders and business executives in helping everyone get through this pandemic.

From the outset of the ordeal, we have seen leaders respond in one of two ways: the right way, i.e., being sensible and considerate in their message, or the wrong way, i.e., lacking empathy and sensitivity to the drama that is playing out for millions of victims. Fortunately, the majority of CEOs have reacted in a manner befitting the nature and scope of the emergency.

Their response has been swift and authentic

Top execs are usually surrounded by an army of writers and communications consultants. And that’s completely understandable, considering everything they are responsible for and the limited time they generally have to structure and draft the information that needs to be conveyed to various stakeholders. That being said, in a crisis, using your own words often resonates more strongly with audiences and is more effective in getting a particular message across.

During the COVID-19 crisis, many business leaders have made their own, often unscripted, videos from home to connect with their employees or outside parties. They have used internal and external digital and streaming platforms to clarify their organization’s stance on closures, layoffs and staff cutbacks as well as talk about potential plans to rebuild.

For a number of years now, the Edelman Trust Barometer has emphasized the necessity for CEOs to advocate their own point of view and be more accessible, more authentic and even more fallible. The Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report on COVID-19 shows that 65% of employees turn to their employer for credible information, behind only doctors and public health authorities.

This survey, which was conducted from March 6 to 10 in Canada and nine other countries, drives home the point that CEOs enjoy a high level of trust among their employees, who rank their employer more trustworthy than the government, NGOs, business in general and the media, oftentimes by a significant margin. The same study shows 54% of people trust their employer to tell the truth about the virus, compared with 83% for scientists and 48% for the government.

This public health crisis is an opportunity for business leaders to lead, by playing an active role in the fight against the spread of the virus in their workplace and by being compassionate and proactive in sharing factual information from respected scientific sources. Arne Sorenson, President and CEO of Marriott International, is an excellent example of a successful approach in this regard.

They have put employees first, before anyone else

Many corporate communications plans tend to be outward-facing, prioritizing current and prospective customers, shareholders, media and government agencies. But in times of upheaval, the primary focus needs to be trained on the people who make up the organization. Employees, as active social media users, are an important communications channel and a conduit for corporate values. While a crisis of this nature is in full swing, it is essential to also think ahead to what will follow in the aftermath. Maintaining employees’ trust by providing them with complete, accurate information on an ongoing basis is therefore critical. Moreover, as this article in The Economist explains, organizations can utilize human resources as a strategic lever. The strong relationships that talent management teams have built with their employees count more than ever.

They have shared scientifically credible information

It is difficult to think of a moment in our society where scientific experts have been called upon to make such a powerful and decisive contribution. Right now, they are the most trusted spokespeople in the world (83% globally, 87% in Canada, according to the same Edelman report), although they do not always have the networks in place or the same ability to communicate as their corporate counterparts. The role of business is therefore to ensure that the information reported via in-house channels (newsletters, social media, etc.) is based on scientific fact.

In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, most businesses will not be developing much in terms of content, but they will likely be passing it along. Hence the importance of updating your website and making sure anything you share is of the highest quality – for two reasons. First, because people are counting on you to provide factual information. And second, because the “second pandemic” in circumstances like these is the spread of so-called fake news. In a crisis situation, your communications should be about credibility, not creativity. Other parties should be able to turn to you for reliable information, which you should be able to transmit through via an established network.

An opportunity to lead

At the outset of this pandemic, many companies led the way by encouraging their staff to work from home and cancel various events open to the public. As the situation continues to evolve, almost by the hour, they must now prepare themselves to answer broader questions about their impact on society as a whole. The people who depend on them expect them to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem. In this regard, the Trust Barometer stresses that it is incumbent upon companies both to team up with the government (90%) and to fill in any of the gaps not addressed by the government response (86%). This is the moment when businesses must step up to the plate, in earnest, and show that their values run deeper than their bottom line. It is an opportunity for leaders to prove that their organization deserves the trust not only of their shareholders but also of everyone who has a stake in their operations.

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