As a CEO of a company – no matter big or small – sooner or later you will be confronted with an unfamiliar challenge. Something that breaks the rules completely. Something you never experienced before. Something that can destroy your company, or maybe the opposite – an opportunity that can boost your business. You will lack sufficient information, yet you will need to make quick decisions. Not a big deal, you think, quick decision making is my job. But this time will be different. Because now you immediately need your entire organization on board. You could face an upheaval in your business continuity in a matter of hours.
The Covid Pandemic: a communications challenge
Covid quickly changed the way we work and behave every day globally. Not only did it change companies, it changed countries and businesses across the globe. In Spring 2020, leaders had little information about the virus. With little insight, they needed to do something to contain the pandemic and the panic that was ensuing. The key was not only to make good decisions, but to communicate them efficiently so that billions of people would comply with orders. Some leaders fared better than others.
We saw countries adopt harsh rules and enforce them strictly. As the pandemic grew, and more was learned more about the virus, new rules were introduced and again strictly enforced. It seemed that with every new bit of information or learning, changing rules and tactics were implemented. Initially some countries saw little benefit in face masks, based on the information they had. Then they became compulsory in public almost everywhere across the globe. In many countries schools were first closed, then opened and then closed again. The public, initially frightened and eagerly obeying all rules, seemed to become more and more confused with every subsequent change and began ignoring the rules.
At the same time, some countries refused to enforce the strict rules and when they made decisions, they offered them up as more recommendations rather than orders. They recognized the sparsity of the available data, and therefore did not rush the processes or their communication. When they made mistakes, they were keener to admit them, which built trust with citizens. They waited and then standardized DDM (distance, disinfection, mask), communicating their intentions simply and consistently. Citizens found the messages and direction much easier to adopt since they hadn’t been bombed with contradictory commandments before.
The Covid pandemic taught us a lot about controlling information and communications. If you are a CEO acting in an unfamiliar situation and you want your organization to follow you, it’s best to look at the data and decide whether to initiate communication early or wait a bit. Remember that the success depends not only on what people know, but also on what they feel. In times of panic and hysteria, calmer heads often do prevail. Similarly, being direct and truthful also helps: Admit that you do not have all the information and further changes may come. This builds trust, and is ethical. When a leader states opinion as fact, with confidence and force, and then repeatedly changes their stance, audiences grow distrustful. Finally, confer with your communications professionals, get expert advice and evaluate their recommendations through your business strategy, brand and goals. This recent Covid pandemic highlighted what my 20+ years in global communications taught me: simplicity, consistency and honesty work. If you found this topic interesting, please let me know in comments below and stay tuned. Soon I will share with you 5 steps for successful communication in extreme crisis situations.