How to lead through crisis: 7 lessons from execs whose COVID-19 responses made headlines

"We will all be watching and listening."

Corporate, organizational and government leaders have been under enormous pressure this year to find the right words—and actions—to balance optimism with reality at a time when everything seems to be going wrong. Now, particularly in the U.S., leaders are again being called on in unprecedented ways to help employees and consumers navigate the crisis brought on by the death of George Floyd. The call is for leaders who are credible, trustworthy and aware of the role and power they hold in shaping a healthier, safer and more inclusive future for us all. In a new report, Leading Through Crisis, my agency looked at the recent responses of top brands around the world to identify seven best practices for communication during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

  1. Execute with a bold vision: Leaders with a vision for how to get beyond a crisis are not reactionary. Instead, they determine how to advance by drawing on experience, both their own and of great leaders who came before them. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had one of the most high-profile responses to the coronavirus, cancelling the NBA season before any other sports had done so, promoting and encouraging sound public health to a huge audience. According to data from Meltwater, Silver saw the highest scores for leadership out of the four major sports leagues, due to positive coverage of his swift action.
  2. Simplify what’s complex: Every day of the pandemic, we’re confronted with a vast amount of scientific, health and economic terminology and data, delivered in the form of phrases and charts that are unfamiliar to most of us. Good leaders decipher and simplify information for others. Consider the style of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who uses ordinary language to explain an extraordinary situation. CEOs have mastered this as well: Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield has used the simple "rule of three" to communicate to employees that are worried about prioritizing work, telling them to "… take care of yourselves, take care of your families, be a good partner."
  3. Mind the six C’s: There are six "C’s" for leaders to remember when communicating in a crisis: Be calm, candid, confident, credible, compassionate and consistent. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo demonstrates these often during his daily media briefings, and Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky conveyed calm to his employees through video messages that started with a positive message or anecdote. You find many of his interiews and messages on youtube, well worth a watch.
  4. Connect to purpose: With people searching for meaning to make sense of what is happening in the world, companies and CEOs have been asked to take concrete action to back up their words about the Black Lives Matter Movement. Good leaders have taken heed in the form of donations, resources for employees and the general public and by using their public platforms to communicate about a higher purpose. Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey is one of 40 business leaders who has pledged to "do their part" for the city of Atlanta as part of the Atlanta Committee for Progress. As he noted in a virtual town hall to employees, businesses like theirs can play an important and meaningful role by putting their resources and energy toward helping end the cycle of systemic racism.
  5. Be human first: Crisis situations have a unique ability to bring people together. During coronavirus, stay-at-home orders in most states required everyone, including CEOs, to conduct business from their homes—often resulting in humanizing moments for all. Allowing people to understand the story behind the person breeds familiarity and commonality. Inspirational stories have certainly come from Black Lives Matter protests, where people of all ages, genders and ethnicities have joined for a common purpose—equality and justice for black people.
  6. Meet people where they are: Understanding the emotional demands on people—and the channels they use to reach out—during this time is a key component to strong leadership. Proctor & Gamble met its customers on TikTok, enlisting the help of popular TikTok phenom Charli D’Amelio to encourage social distancing. And YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki began using her personal Twitter channel to communicate about the brand’s response to COVID-19.
  7. Build trust with transparency: Trust is anchored in transparency, and those leaders who are held in the highest esteem communicate what they know, acknowledge what they don’t and outline what they’re doing to learn more. When Zoom’s platform was overwhelmed by the massive and quick uptick in video conferencing, CEO Eric Yuan not only apologized but outlined his plans to fix the security issues and took responsibility, conducing a live "Ask Eric Anything" video that was received positively.

CEOs and others who walk away from the COVID-19 crisis having earned the trust of their customers and employees will have done so because they displayed their humanity, met people where they were and acted with transparency, even when what needed to be communicated wasn’t easy. Ask yourself, are your leaders doing the same?

We will all be watching and listening.

James Wright is CEO of Red Havas; Chairman of Havas PR Global Collective.                                                                                              

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