Your voice as a business leader has never been more important: The dos and don’ts of leadership communications in the time of COVID-19

Consumers and employees want to hear from company leaders during this time of crisis, but make sure you're adding value to the conversation.

Credit: Adam Blasberg

BroadbandTV Corp. founder and CEO Shahrzad Rafati is one of many B.C. leaders stepping up during COVID-19

As your company talks about the crisis, follow these tips to avoid creating inbox hell for customers, employees and other stakeholders

We’ve all received them: the steady stream of brand emails responding to COVID-19. While some offer valuable information, the pile-up of bland, repetitive messaging amounts to inbox hell for lots of us. Even the occasional “Letter from the CEO” can read like a check mark on a corporate to-do list—obligatory, uninspired and often unnecessary.

As the co-founder of a firm that specializes in executive-specific communications, I’ve been busy advising leaders on how to navigate public messaging right now. In response to the most basic question—Should I say anything at all?—the answer is a resounding yes. But it’s what you say that makes all the difference. 

The case for leaders to have a voice, from a bottom-line perspective and from a human one, is clear-cut. More than nine in 10 employees and three-quarters of consumers want to hear from their company leaders on key issues of the day, according to Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer. Moments of crisis represent a leadership vacuum. And we look to people we trust—not brands or logos—to fill that void. 

Also, at a time when your business may not be able to sell products or engage in traditional marketing, taking to your personal social media or other channels provides a key touchpoint with stakeholders—letting customers, employees, investors and colleagues know that you’re there for them and for your business. Ultimately, more than 80 percent of people say that hearing from a CEO positively impacts brand perception.

But making sure that you’re adding value to the conversation is critical. While the situation is still evolving, here are three pieces of advice we’ve been sharing with clients during this turbulent period.

Don’t go radio silent 

In a time of uncertainty, it can be tempting for leaders to fall back on the classic corporate playbook: hunker down, avoid controversy, and wait for the storm to pass. It’s a natural inclination—we fear we aren’t experts, that the situation is beyond our control, that we’ll say the wrong thing. But this approach overlooks a critical human need.

When things are unstable, we look to leaders to acknowledge that they’re right there in the trenches with us, sometimes literally. In the spring of 1940, Winston Churchill had some 14 million leaflets distributed across Britain. The wartime prime minister’s sentiment—keep calm and carry on; we’re in this together—mattered as much as any practical air raid advice. 

There’s no shortage of examples of leaders doing this effectively today. From Shopify’s Tobi Lutke reaching out to merchants asking how he can help and imploring them to direct-message him, to Shahrzad Rafati of Vancouver-headquartered BroadbandTV Corp. posting work-from-home tips, we see CEOs engaging and sharing, even if they don’t have all the answers. Judging from the hundreds of likes and comments on these updates, the approach is working.  

Use your voice to go places your brand can’t

Leaders who opt to share their voice are at a distinct advantage: they can say things and go places that a brand simply cannot. Brands are artificial constructs, after all—great for selling stuff to customers, but also sterile, impersonal and inflexible. 

COVID-19 is a human experience that warrants a different, distinctly human response. Customers need reassuring, employees need counselling, investors need calming, and colleagues need support. As a leader, your humanity is your greatest asset here. You’re able to drop the corporate script and speak to people as people, sharing firsthand experiences as you navigate uncertain terrain together. 

Vulnerability, rawness and authenticity—all the messy stuff that “brand” often airbrushes out—are what matter most. Leaders willing to bring these qualities to the fore stand to deepen relationships and forge connections that will endure beyond any passing crisis.  

Take Clearblanc’s Michele Romanow offering to make personalized videos encouraging folks to stay home and “flatten the curve”, or Knix’s Joanna Griffiths checking on people’s mental health. These messages have little to do with core business objectives, but they build loyalty for the long haul. These are businesses we want to do business with, run by humans who care. 

Don’t stop talking about business milestones

The harsh reality is that many businesses, including yours, may be suffering. Still, there are so many companies finding pockets of opportunity amid this chaos. While the temptation may be to defer positive business news, this is the time to do exactly the opposite. 

Behind the immediate health crisis lies another equally salient challenge: even as the world battles this virus, the gears of business need to keep turning. There’s real value to be found in seeing some semblance of business normalcy, and leaders are uniquely positioned to offer hope that we can get through this. For example, Cameron Uganec, VP marketing at Vancouver-based social media platform Later, recently shared that his team is still hiring, while Vancouver startup investor Boris Wertz took to Twitter to announce that one of his portfolio companies had raised Series B funding

Tone is undeniably important, but there’s no need to suppress stories of positive trajectory or resilience, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have them. 

No matter what communications tack you choose, keep in mind that conditions are changing daily. For leaders, being strategic, intentional and mindful are always good baselines when sharing news. Don’t forget: we’re all in this together. As leaders, we have the opportunity to let our stakeholders know that. And they’ll probably remember it when all this is over. 

Caroline Carter is co-founder of Vancouver-based executive communications firm CSuite Content and the CSuite Digital Leadership Awards, which recognize leaders who use their voice to inspire and influence.