Six Tips for CEOs on Communicating During This (or any) Crisis

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In response to some of the questions I have been getting from clients and friends like you, I have put together the following tips on how to communicate during this crisis. These tips have emerged from numerous crises that either I have helped navigate through or have had the privilege of learning about from the leaders who thrived despite them. As you think about communicating to your teams this week, consider these best practices. And, if you have other tips not on this list, please share with me at craig@aesoppartners.com.

The number one role of a leader is to lead. In these times of uncertainty, know that the people around you are looking to you for direction as well as watching for subtle signals about the future. At the same time, they are anxious. Whether they worry about the health of their families or their financial security, they need to know that life will go on and that there is hope for the future of your organization. We may have tough messages to deliver, especially those firms more affected by the economic decline, but there should be a balance of firmness with hope.

  1. Be clear. I’ve met so many employees from all walks of life who surprised me with their insight and intelligence (so much so that I have finally stopped being surprised and started to expect it!) You don’t need to sugarcoat or create too rosy a picture; be honest and forthright. People will see through you any other way and are more likely to appreciate your trusting in their resiliency during this crisis.
  2. Provide a reason, not an excuse. If you are making cutbacks, deferring raises or canceling them altogether, furloughing employees, etc., explain why. Offer the details and thought process behind how this will help the company survive this crisis and speak to your plans for the recovery.
  3. Consider the “survivors.” Leadership reputations, and relationships between employees and their employers at both the manager and company level, are made or broken during these crises. The way in which we respect the people who are let go may matter even more to those we retain than to those who are laid off. Put yourself in the shoes of the mid-level employee whose close work friend of 10 years has just been let go; did the way that you communicated to that individual (as well as to the company at large) increase respect for you and the organization, or reduce it?
  4. Review the communication with your executives. Ask them, “What is the worst way a skeptical employee could view this communication? What else can we clarify to help address that?” I’ve seen too many instances where very well-intentioned communications added fuel to the fire rather than put it out. I am reminded of the grammar meme, “Let’s eat grandma.” versus “Let’s eat, grandma.” Attention to detail is magnified for crisis communications.
  5. Provide a channel or mechanism for employees to ask you questions as honestly as possible. In a severe crisis, I have set up anonymous email services where employees can go to a website or intranet and use an anonymous form to send a question or concern directly to the CEO and/or the communications war room. Pulse surveys can also be used for this. Whatever your approach, make sure that you provide employees a way to ask you the tough questions, and then answer them. Unfortunately, ignorance is NOT bliss; if you don’t know what they’re worried or skeptical about, you can’t address the concern and the rumors can swirl.
  6. Don’t hide. In a crisis, it’s natural to want to retreat into the bunker alone or with a small team to figure out the answer. But that behavior exacerbates the problem as the rest of the employees look around and wonder where have all the leaders gone and exactly how bad is this? Instead, now’s the time to engage. Check-in, walk the floor, and listen to your team for their ideas on how they can help the company survive this downturn. Looping back to point number one above, don’t be surprised when some of your best ideas come from those who are several steps away from the executive conference room.

I wish you strength and resiliency as you navigate these challenges. This is our opportunity to follow the words of Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” That is to say, this time calls for leadership and rather than waiting for others to step up, let’s each do our part to provide guidance and assurance to those in our immediate circle.

Keep the conversation going, below in the comments or reach out to me directly. Til then, lead on!

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