Kylie McMullan is the principal of Finch Media and is a communications strategy expert who has worked on a number of issues and recalls across a number of industries including healthcare and consumer packaged goods.
Julia Smith is the managing director at Finch Media, an internal communications expert with extensive crisis work, including work around the Ebola crisis in 2014.
As concerns grip the world regarding COVID-19, companies are unsure of how to communicate, with both internal and external stakeholders. Declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, COVID-19 – with all its uncertainty – has stopped the entire globe with simple questions, such as: What do we do now? And, how do we stay safe?
In times like this, where we don’t know what to say, it is often of the utmost importance that we step up to the podium anyway. And while corporate leaders may be unsure of how to proceed, it’s imperative to communicate with customers, investors, suppliers, business partners, and employees to share compassion, show responsiveness, and demonstrate strong leadership.
The guiding principle for all stakeholder communications is to listen first, followed by empathic and compassionate responses. It is important to try and truly understand the perspective of your customers and employees, and what they need to feel reassured and safe. Taking time to practice compassionate communication during times of stress builds trust and underscores commitment at multiple levels. Here are three tips for how companies should be communicating with both external audiences and internal audiences.
Tips for communicating with external audiences:
- Provide external stakeholders with open, transparent updates. Don’t wait to communicate. Don’t assume that stakeholders are feeling confident in your business. This is especially true if your business has high customer interaction. Even if you’re not a business with high customer touchpoints, customers may be looking for reassurance. It is important to provide updates on how you’re putting customer health and well-being first. Club Row, a rowing gym in Vancouver, sent a heart-felt message around closing its studio due to the social responsibility to practice social distancing and is looking into offering free streaming classes. These types of efforts demonstrate mindfulness, care, and prioritizing global health.
- (Virtual) interaction is good. Speak to key stakeholders to gain feedback. What are they worried about? How can you provide them with confidence in your business and how can you assist them? Set up robust social listening and media monitoring systems to stay educated on the outbreak and stakeholder reactions. Also, listen to possible solutions they have. For example, academic institutions are expanding online learning opportunities. Filmmakers are opting for virtual festivals. Newspapers are lifting paywalls on COVID-19 stories and Telus is waiving home internet overages. Become creative on how your business can use technology to meet product and service demands.
- Enable your team for success. Provide employees with messaging to provide to customers and partners. Be truthful about what you don’t know and avoid sweeping statements that may prove to be false in the coming weeks. The world knows the uncertainty of COVID-19, and isn’t expecting you to predict the future. Rather, they want to be informed and confident that you’re responding to the best of your ability. You don’t want a situation where there are inconsistent and contradictory communications being shared with customers, business partners, suppliers, and investors. Furthermore, employees don’t like feeling uninformed or caught off-guard. Once employees are given messaging, choose communication channels that make sense for each stakeholder group.
Tips for communicating with internal audiences:
- Provide opportunities for employees to share their concerns. Offer employees remote working situations where possible without being punitive. We’ve heard of companies telling employees they should use vacation days if they need to self-quarantine. This will only discourage people from taking actions to prevent the spread of the virus. Employees who feel respected and that their health is being prioritized, are employees that are loyal and motivated.
- Over-communicate. Provide ongoing updates to employees around any potential impacts. What are you proactively doing? Don’t assume employees know how you’re prioritizing their health. If you have a large contractor workforce, ensure you’re also communicating with them in a timely manner.
- Respond to feedback. While it’s important to ask for feedback and communicate throughout times of stress, it is equally important to respond to the feedback provided. If employees take the time to share concerns, you need to respond. To keep a healthy dialogue going, companies need to demonstrate what they do with feedback they receive and how it informs the business.
In times of stress and uncertainty communication is necessary. Don’t be afraid to communicate because of the changing nature of this epidemic or assume your stakeholders don’t need assurances. Show true leadership by providing open conversations and compassionate communications with your customers, investors, suppliers, and employees.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.
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