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Leadership, Communication, and COVID-19
As the COVID-19 Pandemic continues to grow, Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership has been advising clients and carefully studying communication by leaders across a range of sectors and forms of organization.
We have reviewed thousands of communications by CEOs, university presidents, NGO executive directors and secretaries general, and public officials. And we have identified patterns that help leaders and their organizations make smart choices and avoid inadvertent self-inflicted harm.
Seven Crises in One
One of the foundational principles of effective crisis management is to name the problem accurately and to understand the true scope and likely risk of the crisis.
I believe that the COVID-19 crisis is actually seven crises in one. Think of these as seven different dimensions of the crisis. There’s a danger that a leader might be so focused on any one of the dimensions that he or she will miss the need to address the others. The seven dimensions of COVID-19 are these:
- Public Health Crisis: At its core COVID-19 is a public health crisis. Half a million people worldwide have gotten sick; tens of thousands have died. More will get sick and die before things get better. But now in the United States the public health crisis includes a healthcare delivery system that is being strained to the breaking point. As hospitals in epicenters begin to fill up, there’s also a shortage of medical equipment and personal protective gear. Health workers are at risk, as are other patients.
- Business Crisis: COVID-19 presents a business problem for all forms of organizations. There is a cost impact, for most organizations a negative one. There is a revenue impact, mostly negative; for some potentially catastrophic. There is disruption of operations. There is an HR impact.
- Economic Crisis: At the same time there is a significant economic crisis underway. The risk of falling into a major recession, very low two months ago, now is quite high. The markets have exhibited unprecedented volatility. Economic uncertainty is wearing on people and institutions.
- Information Crisis: From the beginning of the pandemic there has been significant incorrect information, incomplete information, and in some cases intentionally misleading information in the information ecosystem. This information crisis leads to significant misunderstanding about who is at risk of contracting the illness, who can transmit it, and what precautions are appropriate.
- Competence of Government Crisis: Not just in the U.S., but initially in China, Iran, and other nations the initial responses were bungled and the virus spread. In the U.S. we have yet to see a whole of government response. Rather, we’ve seen a fragments of government response. Only in the third week of March, and the third month of COVID-19 in the U.S., are there sufficient tests and testing sites. But there is insufficient personal protective equipment for health workers, and a shortage of hand sanitizers, rubber gloves, and masks in retail stores.
- Social Crisis: People’s lives have been upended; many people are losing or at risk of losing their jobs. Supermarket shelves are bare. Many companies have ordered employees to work from home; schools are closed or have gone to virtual learning. But there has also been a rise of incivility, insult, and violence against people who have been stigmatized. President Trump’s insistence on calling COVID-19 “China Virus” or “Chinese Virus” has led to a wave of hate crimes against people perceived to be Asian or Asian-American.
- Mental Health Crisis: Human beings are social animals, and social distancing is having an effect. Compound this with the fear of the illness, the rising rate of infections and fatalities, and the other dimensions of the crisis, people are fraught. They are fragile. And they need extra care. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has asked for mental health professionals to volunteer to work with people not presently under their care to begin to meet this mental health need. I expect other governors will do the same.
Everything is Different
The unprecedented scope of the crisis makes it difficult to predict what will happen next. This crisis is unlike others. Among the differences:
- This is unlike prior pandemics. This is the first global pandemic in a social media world. Recent pandemics were geographically contained. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome was mostly confined to the Republic of Korea. Ebola was contained in the United States, and our military and public health experts were able to contain it in West Africa. And this is the first truly global pandemic in the lifetimes of most people in leadership positions.
- This is unlike natural disasters. Most organizations are ready or can adapt to natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods. But those are generally geographically confined and are sudden but short in duration. COVID-19 is widespread and will continue for a very long time.
- This is not like ordinary corporate crises. Most corporate crises are limited to a particular company, sector, or geography. But this one affects every organization. And unlike most corporate crises, this one has the additional dimensions of public health, economic risk, information challenges, competence of government, and social dislocation.
- The situation is constantly changing. The scope of contagion, the government and society’s response to it, and our understanding of risk to ourselves are in constant flux. In a matter of days we saw an escalation from no large crowds to no crowds at all to stay-at-home orders to full lock-down orders.
- This is fundamentally reshaping our understanding of work. As millions of American workers learn how to work from home, and as companies experiment with different modes of delivering products and services, the likelihood of a return to pre-COVID-19 conditions is not clear.
Crisis Response Best Practices
Most ineffective crisis responses begin with leaders asking some version of What should we do? Or What should we say? The challenge with this kind of question is that it focuses on the we – on the entity or leader in crisis. This results in the consideration of options that may make the leader in midst of crisis feel less vulnerable. But it is unlikely to lead to what is necessary to maintain trust, confidence, and support of those people whose trust, confidence, and support are critical to the organization.
What is needed is a different kind of thinking that begins not with the I/me/we/us but rather with the they/them – with the stakeholders who matter to the organization. The leadership discipline of mental readiness – the readiness to shift frames of reference from the first person — I/me/we/us — to the third person — they/them — makes all the difference.
And that’s because of the way trust works.
A common goal for most organizations and leaders in crises is to maintain the trust and confidence of those who matter – shareholders, employees, customers, regulators, residents, citizens, voters, etc. Trust is what makes other elements of competitive advantage possible, from stock price to employee morale and productivity to support of regulators.
Trust, in turn, is the consequence of three related but slightly different things:
- Promises fulfilled. These can be explicit promises, or implicit promises such as in a brand identity. If we are seen to break a promise, trust falls.
- Expectations met. These can be expectations we set ourselves, such as by making promises. Or they can be expectations set by law or by government order. Or they can be expectations set by society. If we fail to meet expectations, trust falls.
- Values lived. When those who matter to us experience us as living our stated values, the result is trust. If those who matter to us experience us as not living our stated values, trust falls.
And one of the patterns we notice is that it is much harder to restore trust once it has been lost than to maintain trust before it has been lost.
Asking What should we do? runs the serious risk of failing even to consider stakeholders’ expectations. Worse, it further risks the leader becoming stuck in his or her own perspective, in I/me/we/us. Hence, such crisis whoppers as BP CEO Tony Hayward’s “I’d like my life back,” or even President Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook.”
Most crisis response failures can be traced back to the ultimate decision-makers focusing on their own frame of reference rather than on their stakeholders.
The right question to ask when determining the appropriate course of action in a crisis is not What should we do.
Rather, it is this: What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization or leader to do when facing this kind of situation?
For any stakeholder group we can answer the question, What would reasonable members of this stakeholder group appropriately expect a responsible organization or leader to do? to a very granular level. To the level of all employees, or only those employees in this one facility, or only those employees who were present when something happened. We can inventory those granular expectations for each stakeholder group, and we can then work to fulfill those particular expectations.
But regardless the particular expectations of any given stakeholder group, there is a common expectation that applies to all stakeholder groups all the time: In a crisis, all stakeholders expect a responsible organization or leader to care. To care that something has happened; to care that people need help; to care that something needs to be done.
What it means to care may be different from crisis to crisis, or from industry to industry. What it means to care in the early phases of the crisis may be different from what it means to care in the later phases of the crisis. But that we need to care doesn’t change.
The single largest predictor that trust will fall is the perception of indifference. And silence, when there is an expectation of caring, is interpreted by stakeholders as indifference. And it gives our adversaries, critics, media and social media, and trolls the ability to define us as uncaring, or incompetent, or as lacking integrity.
Applying Best Practices to COVID-19 Communication
As the Logos Institute team has studied institutional response to COVIID-19, we have derived these lessons applying the principle of caring to the pandemic.
- Begin all communication, whether written or verbal, with a statement of values, or belief, or intent, or motivation. Don’t dive directly into the facts. Audiences are far more likely to read or listen, understand, and remember when the leader creates an emotional connection first, and that begins with the statement of values.
- Show you care. Calibrate communication with empathy.
- Be direct: No euphemism. Euphemism is confusing to audiences, especially when under stress. If an employee has died because of COVID-19, say so.
- Tell the truth: Avoid misleading half-truths. Remember that you’re in this for the long term. And eventually you’ll need employees to continue to want to work for you, and customers to want to do business with you. If you know that layoffs are likely, and you’re asked whether there will be layoffs, it may be tempting to say something literally true — “At this point there is no plan to lay people off.” This may be true, but the question was not about whether there is a plan but rather about whether there would be layoffs. A better response would be “We haven’t made a final decision, and we will do whatever we can to protect employees, but layoffs are a possibility.”
- Address all relevant dimensions of the crisis: public health, business crisis, economic crisis, information crisis, competence of government crisis, social crisis, and mental health crisis. It may be tempting to stay in a single frame, say, business crisis. But your stakeholders are experiencing all seven dimensions of the crisis.
- Remember that expectations are dynamic. Yesterday’s expectations may not be helpful today. Calibrate against current expectations.
- Communicate at multiple levels. Employees and other stakeholders need to hear from more than the CEO. At this point it is better to over-communicate than to under-communicate.
- Align on values; allow granular detail appropriate to each level. Whether the CEO or an EVP or VP or department head or project team leader, there should be alignment on the level of values, belief, intent, or motive. But at each level the granularity should be appropriate to the level of the leader doing the communication.
- Convey a positive attitude that balances urgency against the provoking of panic. Effective leaders keep the focus on the future even while demonstrating urgency. But emotions themselves are contagious. Leaders need to stop short of provoking panic.
- Express emotion, vulnerability, and humility. Arrogance makes empathy impossible, and it is empathy that gets leaders and organizations through a crisis. Leaders are often reluctant to express emotion or vulnerability. But the most effective ones do.
- Get good at being on TV. Whether recording a video for public consumption or conducting a meeting via Zoom or Skype or GoToMeeting, leaders need to get good at communicating through a video camera.
- Remember, people are feeling very fragile. People are scared; they’re worried about their jobs and their friends and their families. People’s work lives and personal lives have been upended. And some people are being stigmatized. Now is a time that calls for kindness. Effective leaders care.
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