Part One of our Three Part Series on COVID-19 Communication Dos and Don’ts
Trish Thomas, CEO, TEEM
A few short weeks ago, most business leaders in the U.S. viewed the coronavirus as far away and unlikely to impact their companies or daily lives in a major way. Today, all of us face a very real and personal challenge as we collectively fight a global pandemic.
One of the questions I hear the most from clients and friends is: “How do I reassure customers and staff while acknowledging the reality of our situation?”
Another is “How can I keep sales and marketing moving without seeming insensitive?”
And finally, “What in the world do I say to investors and lenders?”
All are excellent questions. The simple fact that you are thinking proactively about how to communicate effectively during a difficult time is step one. You will likely fare better than leaders who fire off poorly thought out messages during this pandemic. Or worse, go silent.
Let’s tackle the first question and explore healthy ways to engage with customers and your team during the coronavirus pandemic.
How can you reassure customers and staff while acknowledging the reality of your situation?
Communicate clearly and calmly.
Entrepreneurs and executives who haven’t been forced to lead during times of extreme duress often believe their job is to always have the answers and always make everything okay. With COVID-19, no one has all the answers and nothing is okay.
You can’t wave a wand and erase the coronavirus pandemic.
What you can do is communicate with all your key stakeholders frequently, clearly, and calmly. You can present actions and decisions succinctly and powerfully in a way that everyone can understand. You can back up your decisions with facts, sharing key data points from authoritative sources. You can convene meetings or post updates regularly to share new information and bring people together.
Look, I know most entrepreneurs and executives are where we are precisely because we are optimistic and driven, and we always find a way forward. That is admirable, and sinking into despair is pointless.
But the worst case scenario has to be acknowledged and explored. Denial is not courageous. Denial does not solve problems. And it helps no one in situations like the one we face with COVID-19.
Be brave enough to sit down and map out the worst case scenario for your business. Think ahead about what could happen and how you should react as a conscious leader. This exercise will help you stay ahead of the curve and find innovative solutions in advance of encountering obstacles.
Once we’ve looked the enemy directly in the eye, we often feel stronger, more confident, and better prepared to face whatever comes.
Don’t make decisions alone.
I’m not talking about pulling in advisors, investors, and co-owners. Your own customers and team can help you solve problems. They have a unique perspective on their piece of the puzzle and perhaps more importantly, they have a vested interest in helping you stay strong and make good decisions.
At TEEM, our revenue is down, and we are having to make some hard decisions about how to reduce payroll and trim our budget. But by pulling in the team to help save the equivalent of one full-time employee’s salary, we have collectively solved the problem without having to lay anyone off. Multiple team members are willing and able to reduce their salaries by 25%, cutting payroll and helping everyone keep their job.
We have also struck a middle ground with hard-hit clients through strategic conversations about how to keep the basics going and cut discretionary spending without losing precious momentum in key marketing areas.
Often, when leaders are uncertain about the road ahead, they huddle with their inner circle, immerse themselves in their own thoughts, and insulate their team against the unknown. But in true times of crisis, uncertainty can be far worse for your customers and your employees than knowing what you are facing and getting a peek into your head – even if you don’t have definitive answers yet.
Explain what you know, where you are getting information, steps you are taking, and what is unknown.
I know from talking with my team over the past couple of weeks that anxiety can be all-consuming in an information vacuum. Even if what you have to say is, “paying our bills next month is going to be challenging,” “revenue is down 50%,” or “I don’t know,” the fact that you are sharing openly will speak volumes.
And most importantly, your customers and staff will know that you are keeping them informed and will be honest about the hard choices you may have to make down the road.
- For your team, share detailed information more frequently than you do with customers. Your employees are front line ambassadors, and if they aren’t informed about what is going on, their confusion and stress will transmit externally. If they have complete information, feel hopeful about the future, and can help you demystify the situation for outsiders, your company will weather the COVID-19 outbreak better than most. Consider assembling a diverse team of employees from across your business units to support you in communicating effectively to the company as a whole. Give your employees timely information even if you still have gaps in decision making or action steps. And do it personally – they need to hear your voice.
- For your customers, consolidate information into cohesive messages and focus only on what is relevant to them. Think about their perspective, and ensure communications come from the right source on the right channel. For instance, many companies right now need to communicate to customers about coronavirus mitigation tactics, like cleaning frequency, transmission prevention, and altered service schedules or procedures. If your customers tend to follow you on social media, or have high engagement with your email content, leverage the right methods to reach the most people with your messages.
Sometimes there is nothing you can do to avoid a painful decision. You may have no choice but to furlough or lay off employees to save your business. You may be forced to shutter locations, pause or cease popular services, or turn away customers you can’t possibly accommodate. You may have supply chain issues that make it impossible to keep essential items in inventory.
What you can do is BE KIND. Think about how and when hard news will be delivered. Be courageous – and human enough – to have personal conversations. Express your heartfelt sadness at what is happening. Cut through the usual formality and brevity of delivering bad news and show your softer side. Even if the outcome is unchanged, the experience can transform from something agonizing and hurtful, to a rare moment of care and understanding in a time of great disruption.
Be on the lookout for Part 2 in this series, coming soon!