Leadership, Communications and Crisis Management in the COVID-19 Era

by Zohare Ali Shariff

Once, the most widely recognized word in the world, across all countries, cultures, and languages was said to be the word Hello, followed by Okay and …. Coca-Cola! Yes indeed, recognition of this beverage brand name is global.

Today, the most recognized word on the planet has to be Corona; a word practically unknown to us just 4 months ago.

This article examines the fallout of the COVID-19 crisis for the corporate world, inter alia looking at what is to be done.

Crises are not unusual for companies, even for the best-governed ones. The responsible companies will themselves have proactively prepared, or got a specialized PR agency to prepare, a crisis communication and management plan, covering all conceivable crises they may face. But no one was prepared for this – a global pandemic.

Four months into it, we are now well past the first set of responses – communicating personal safety guidelines and initiating work-from-home protocols. As the enormity of this crisis sinks in, even the jokes and memes have petered out. Weeks into the lockdown, the public frame of mind is now exhibiting exasperation, fear at the continuing uncertainty, enhanced stress and even hopelessness. Work-from-home has become deeply frustrating for corporate executives.

This is a time when strong and visionary leadership can make or break the company’s future.

Each company and its leadership need to customize strategy to best suit its own situation, given the wide range of variables – sector of business, number of employees, size of company, financial strength, complexities of supply chain, and so forth.

However, a holistic set of guidelines is given below, which can form a strong base for strategy planning.     

  1. First of all, clearly understand that this crisis is like no other. It is not to be trivialized or joked about or false hope to be created about. While most corporate crises get resolved one way or another (resulting in a fair resolution or a victory, or in long-term damage on the negative side) within a few days or a few weeks at the most, this one is going to prolong for a long time.
  2. The resolution of this global crisis is not in your hands; your strategy has to focus on how to mitigate negative fallout, how best to adjust, and how to be prepared for the post-crisis future.
  3. Understand that the crisis has evoked a range of deep emotions in your employees (and other stakeholders), most of which are negative, and your people are desperate for reassurance, comfort, guidance, and support.
  4. You need to be in regular communication with your people; perhaps twice a week, with a short message at the start of each week on Monday by the CEO, and a longer message by crisis team leader on Thursdays. The CEO does not have to be the only communicator from the company leadership. 
  5. The best communication is always two-way communication. So encourage employees to air their concerns, voice their problems and seek guidance on specific points. One way to do is to set up a special email address employees can write to, on a confidential one-on-one basis, with all incoming emails to be seen and answered by the CEO and / or the crisis team leader. 
  6. Your communication has to be truthful, transparent, facts-based and motivating. People need to trust you. Focus on people finding inner strength, inner reserves of determination to face the odds.
  7. Create uplifting moments – recall past achievements and glory. Good times. Leverage relevant international days for positive messaging. Send birthday greetings to your people when their birthdays come up. 
  8. Share factual information, covering authentic updates on the crisis, actions the company is taking to protect its business and its employees’ future and contributions the company is making to the national effort to fight the crisis, highlighting which makes employees feel included and proud of the organization they belong to.
  9. Weekly messaging to include guidance and practical tips for staying on top of the situation while in the lockdown and at home, both mentally and physically. The communication should be received as proof that the company sincerely cares for its people. Thoughtful and practical tips on how to adapt to changed circumstances, how to use the stay at home opportunity to improve professional learning and acquire new skills, and how to stay entertained as a family will be deeply appreciated.   
  10. Identify ‘champions’ in the organization – people who naturally evoke optimism and boost spirits. Task them for some of the internal communications responsibilities. But make sure these champions are provided talking points and a list of do’s and don’t’s, so that across all people talking to employees, there is a consistency of thought.
  11. Motivate and build strength of employees by creating opportunities for them to be leaders themselves, or help others, as this generates a sense of self-esteem and confidence. Applaud any of your people who are on the frontline under the prevailing crisis; employees who still have to go to office or the factory given the nature of their job, or those who still have to go out in the field, like delivery or maintenance personnel.   
  12. Identify external specialists like motivational speakers, or psychologists or public figures, who can give an hour long talk via video link to employees at a previously announced date and time. 
  13. Zoom meetings with dozens of employees participating have become the rage, but may not work for everyone. Just because the technology is there for big meetings, it does not mean it is the best solution for every occasion. In a crisis people need individual reassurance. Schedule several smaller group meetings as well.
  14. In the end, continue the internal reaching out and communication for some time even when the crisis is over and everyone is back to work. Restoring faith and believe will be important then, for people who may still be quite dazed by all that they have gone through.      

The writer is the CEO of Asiatic Public Relations Network & a specialist in corporate crisis management. He can be contacted at [email protected] 



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