Five Ways To Make Words Matter During The Coronavirus Crisis
Just a few weeks ago, it was hard to believe that our favorite events — from sports games to TED — were postponing or pivoting to virtual. Now, as days of social distancing turn into weeks, and weeks feel like years, we’re only beginning to see how much our lives have been upended.
Online chats — and cameos by coworkers’ children and pets on Zoom — have replaced normal communications. Meanwhile, information from the outside world is rapid-fire. You can’t turn on the TV or scroll through social media without being overwhelmed by updates. As our world becomes increasingly uncertain, strong leadership, clear communication, and reaffirmations of our shared values are more important than ever.
As crises do, this pandemic has illuminated what is truly important. And for us at West Wing Writers, it has underscored a belief we’ve always held dear: words matter. Watching the way leaders are communicating through the crisis, we’re reminded of the fundamentals:
1. Get informed, then speak decisively
Not knowing what tomorrow might hold is scary. And when people are short on information, they fill in the blanks for themselves, and not always in the way you’d want them to. So, chart your course, check your facts, and get your message out the door. You can adjust and update weekly, daily, even hourly if needed, but don’t leave stakeholders — whether your employees, customers, or communities — in the dark when they are most in need of guidance.
Regarding employees in particular, executive communication is at a premium in this crisis. Recent research by Edelman found that respondents trusted their employers more than government officials, and wanted them to update frequently on COVID-19, with information about its impact on colleagues, the company, and beyond. According to Edelman, 63 percent of workers are asking for daily updates, and 20 percent want to hear from their employers more than once a day. As a leader, you don’t have to have all the answers right now; but you do need to show up.
These are extraordinary times and we are focused on navigating the situation responsibly. Our IT tools and systems have been extensively stress-tested… We will be posting updates regularly.
2. Address your audience personally
In times of uncertainty, people want to hear from leaders, not from a disembodied brand voice. Whether your medium is a newsletter, video, or Zoom meeting, provide reassurance from the top. By speaking directly to your colleagues, partners, or customers, you can reinforce confidence in both your leadership and your humanity.
On March 19, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson won widespread praise for his expert, honest video — entitled simply, “A Message from Arne” — regarding the severe impact of the coronavirus crisis on his company, and the steps his team was taking to address it. Standing upright in a suit and tie, a map of the world behind him, he addressed associates compassionately, even as he delivered some very bad news. As of this writing, the message, shared on Twitter, has received over 15,000 likes and been viewed innumerable times.
A more “DIY” example came from Dr. Matt Willis, chief public health officer of Marin County, California, who took to video to address fellow Bay Area residents when he was diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 23. Dr. Willis was apparently filming himself from quarantine in his own home. He’s wearing shirtsleeves. There’s no fancy backdrop. No official props or staging. But he’s still able to project reassurance. He anticipates people’s questions and answers them proactively — explaining what’s happening, how he and his team are handling it, and what others can do.
I’m frustrated to be sidelined at this important time. But I’m part of a very large and excellent team, and have the best possible deputy health officer, Dr. Lisa Santora, taking over for the next few days at least. You’re in excellent hands. And I can return to work, according to the CDC, after three days without symptoms. I’m hoping that time comes soon. After that, I should be more immune, and can be more confident to stay active as our local incidence increases, which we know it will. So that’s a small silver lining.
3. Speak authentically
Recognize the uncertainties of the moment by speaking honestly about your own. This might mean acknowledging your own concerns as a leader, discussing how the crisis is impacting your life or work day-to-day, or sharing a story about your family. Leaders can feel pressure to hide their emotions, believing that vulnerability undermines authority, but this is a time to be your most whole and human self. Remember that authority and authenticity not only coexist; they complement one other. Connect with your audience by describing your own routines and, if appropriate, consider sharing the kinds of conversations that you are having with your loved ones.
On a more personal note, in my own family, we are taking reasonable precautions and have made decisions to appropriately adjust our lives…As a company and as a family, we’re trying to do our part, to stay informed and to remain thoughtfully engaged as individuals and as members of a community.
4. Offer expertise
This might or might not be the time to promote your products or services, but it’s definitely a time to share your expertise. Ask and answer: what can you do to help? For example, Zoom CEO Eric S. Yuan rolled out resources explaining how companies can move their entire workforce online. On top of that, early and decisively, he announced a plan to make his videoconferencing tool available for free to K-12 schools. People don’t want to just hear that you’ve diagnosed the problem. They want to hear how you are contributing solutions.
It’s my responsibility as Zoom’s CEO — and Zoom’s unique responsibility as a company — to do everything in our power to support those impacted by the coronavirus outbreak by committing our reliable technology, expanded access, and agile customer service.
5. Reaffirm your values
There is a lot that no one knows right now, but one thing is abundantly clear: This is a defining moment for leaders, organizations, our country, and the world. Amidst so much turbulence, we should use this opportunity to reaffirm the things that ground us: our purpose, our priorities, and our values. We’ve known for years that a company’s values drive engagement among employees and customers. Even if your organization’s margins are shaky right now, you can still be rock solid when it comes to your mission. These are the elements that hold a thriving organizational culture together — and they will continue to do so, even when we must be physically apart.
Our company was founded on core values — trust, customer success, innovation, and equality — and our values are unwavering and continue to guide everything we do.
We might not be able to control everything right now, but we can control the ways we react. So start where you can: with strong, clear, and affirming communications.