Communicating with confidence – when you feel anything but

3 fundamental principles for leaders in uncertain times

Among the endless stream of look-alike COVID-19 emails from organizations, one struck me like a bolt of lightning.

It came last week, as I was getting on a plane – the last one I would board for a while – for an unexpectedly early return from a family vacation. I was anxiously reviewing our firm’s financial forecasts – reasonably healthy now, but with huge uncertainty in the months ahead – as the world was plunging into a pandemic-caused recession.

The subject line: Are you planning layoffs? It was from an outplacement company, offering its services.

Yes, such services are valuable right now, with the pandemic upending life and work. Ethical employers always struggle to do the right thing for the sustainability of their business and its people, which can sometimes include the painful decision to layoff some capable employees. But as I absorbed it, up in the air, the email struck me as singularly insensitive.

There’s been much written about communication, and, to some extent, marketing, during a crisis – but not enough that’s contemporary to these unprecedented times.

How can leaders, organizations and brands communicate with confidence at a time when they feel very little certainty — and are likely anything but confident themselves? How can they be authentic, honest and above all valuable to their stakeholders, without alienating them?

1. Start with empathy: What unique gift can you give?
Analyze your stakeholders’ hearts and minds. What do they need now? What information or meaningful help can you offer – ideally, better than anyone else?

The answers will likely be different for each organization or brand – and for each stakeholder. For example:

  • A customer-service gesture such as an airline waiving change fees, or a mobile phone company waiving out-of-country roaming charges (thank you, Air Canada and Telus).
  • Conveying essential knowledge or public-service information such as Loblaws reassuring customers that it had plenty of food, offering online ordering and sharing information about protective measures while stores remain open.
  • Using your resources to help affected people or industries such as Facebook Canada offering $100,000 in grants to Canadian performers and partnering with the National Arts Centre on the Canada Performs series.
  • Providing free education to help people learn to work remotely, as LinkedIn is doing.
  • A small moment of wonder or entertainment such as Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium filling the void of visitors by letting its penguins walk freely through the place.

A critical consideration here is reciprocity: These are things you must give freely, with no sales pitch, and no instant expectation of return. You’re showing your values, and your talent. You’re earning reputation – the most precious of all business assets. And you’re entering a conversation – or starting one.

2. Analyze risk – without groupthink
As the outplacement firm demonstrated, your communication – and especially your marketing – may catch people at a time when they’re focused on needs that are far more basic than you can fill, and on issues that are far more critical. The risk of stakeholders feeling annoyed, harassed, or even outraged, is higher than usual.

Consider the activist, lobbyist, association or NGO advocating for their cause, or seeking policy or regulatory change. Before you post or send something out, ask an objective outsider to review it. If they are not sure you should send it, think twice before doing so. For example, as Ted Nordhaus, founder of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank, told Bloomberg this week, “It’s not the time to be talking about climate change or demanding climate policy.

Efforts to help can also go awry without objective, sober second thought, as the celebrities singing Imagine to ‘bring the world together’ discovered last week — a gesture that seemed empty from their positions of privilege, wealth and power — and contrasted poorly with those making a more meaningful difference, such as Elton John or Roger Federer.

Be wary of your business decisions unrelated to the crisis. The best example this week was Goldman Sachs awarding its CEO a pay raise of almost 20 per cent – to widespread criticism.

Finally, review your current or upcoming marketing campaigns: Are there images of people in large groups, embracing or shaking hands? Do you have a slogan such as “finger-lickin’ good?” Bite the bullet and invest in new creative, or you risk being the target of ridicule.

3. Leadership in a crisis: All in, no spin
In 30 years of communications, I’ve seen far more trouble come from saying too little than from saying too much. In a world that runs on communication, silence is almost never a sustainable strategy.

Leaders must be visible – showing they’re all in, with no spin. The first instinct at a time like this is often to pull back, to say less, to halt, postpone or cancel communication. It’s natural: leaders like having the facts. They don’t know exactly what’s coming. And what they say won’t just be remembered by their stakeholders; it will be recorded — and likely accessible forever.

In his devastating dissection of Donald Trump’s crisis communication, PRovoke founder Paul Holmes identifies four keys to leadership communication in trying times — the four tests the US president has failed, again and again: openness, competence, fairness, and empathy. At a time when all communication is crisis communication, these principles are essential to communicating with confidence.

Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has been more surefooted, but squandered some of his recent reputational gains with an unnecessary power grab in Parliament that delayed getting help to Canadians.

A final lesson for leaders comes from a longstanding source of reputational pratfalls: The International Olympic Committee. On March 22, commenting on the 2020 Summer Olympics, the IOC announced that ‘cancellation is not on the agenda’ and that it would take a month to review the situation.

Two days later, after incredulous responses from athletes and public objections from the Canadian and Australian Olympic Committees, the IOC finally came to the obvious conclusion: the Olympics would be postponed to 2021 (although, bizarrely, a spokesperson insisted they would still be called the ‘2020 Tokyo Olympics’).

The lesson? This is a time to step up, not step back, and to lead by example. It’s a time to be among the first — not the last — to do the right thing.

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