Make Internal Communication Your First Priority For COVID-19 Crisis Management

Erik Bernstein crisis leadership


[Editor’s note: This post was originally published on Bernstein Crisis Management team member Jon Harmon’s Strategic Comms blog, and he was kind enough to allow us to reprint this important open letter to senior leaders in every sector that addresses why the COVID-19 coronavirus concerns mean you should be prioritizing internal communications and ensuring employees stay engaged, hopeful, healthy, and productive.]

Internal Communication Is Your First Priority: Crisis Management in COVID-19 Pandemic

An Open Letter to Senior Leaders in Every Sector

Dear CEO:

Your company’s employees have suddenly become displaced and isolated, working from home in the new reality of COVID-19 lock-down. They are making remarkable use of conference calls and virtual meeting sites, as well as Skype or Zoom. They are continuing to work and collaborate and keep a sense of team. But they wonder if they are spinning their wheels, working on projects that may no longer be relevant at a time when no one is buying your products and services. They need clear direction from the top of the house. Are they getting it?

In a time of nearly unprecedented uncertainty that can freeze even the stout-hearted, you (as your senior team) should be communicating frequently to all employees to:

  • Inspire hope that we will get through this emergency together—as a society and as a company
  • Preserve your corporate culture
  • Reinforce the continuing relevance of your Brand, your Purpose / Mission, and your Values
  • Explain how your strategy has changed and what that means to each employee
  • Make sure each part of the organization is capturing and sharing learnings during this extraordinary period and beyond

Each of these outcomes are fundamental both to your company’s survival during the crisis and to its ability to make an impact in the market on the other side of the crisis.

Inspire hope and confidence. This is far and away the most important job of a leader, arguably in any time and environment, but certainly in a time of existential crisis. Speak optimistically, pointing to the light you see coming on the other side of this crisis, without sugar-coating the challenges we all are facing. Acknowledge the uncertainty and fear we all are feeling. But then move to why you have confidence in the company and its people. Highlight shining examples of teamwork, collaboration, problem-solving innovation … and exemplary service to customers and to the community … that you are aware of, and ask for employees to send you other examples that you can highlight in your next weekly message. Yes, I said “weekly.” (You didn’t think CEO communication during a stressful time was a “one-and-done” job, did you?)

Preserve your Culture. Your unique culture is the essence of who you are as a company and is your most sustainable competitive advantage. Left unattended, your culture may very well become weakened or fragmented and your values left by the wayside. This is why you need to inspire hope and celebrate teamwork, and to bolster your bottom-up and side-to-side communication channels. Feedback from every corner of the company is critical to your role as the company’s culture champion, reducing your blind spots and ensuring that your communications aren’t tone deaf to what your people are feeling and expressing to each other.

Reinforce the enduring importance of your company to the market and the world at large. Emphasize the positive impact of your Brand and your company, and the continued relevance of your Purpose or Mission in a frightened world and beyond. Mention your Values frequently and underscore their importance—how you operate is as important to your company’s long-term success as what you do. (If you have not yet articulated a company Purpose and set of Values, convene the senior team by video or conference call to work through this critically important work. This is not just an exercise in semantics—you wouldn’t set out in a sailboat without a rudder, would you? Make sure your Purpose is unique to your organization and brand, articulated in the way your people speak and think, and essential to these turbulent times but continuing in relevance into a re-normalized future.)

Explain what your new strategy means to everyone—and to each of them. First of all, you need to modify your overall strategy even if you think your existing strategy is brilliant. It may have been brilliant, but COVID-19 has changed everything in the immediate term and plenty in the long term. Some of the long-term behavioral changes of your customers, your employees, your suppliers, your communities and your competitors are already predictable and some will only become clear over time. Gather your senior team together (virtually) and develop your new/altered/refined strategy – and then begin communicating that strategy through the organization, with each subsequent direct report making it real and specific for their people. This also should be a reoccurring topic in your weekly communications. Your people can’t be expected to be productive when they don’t know if what they are working on still matters or if they may even be at cross-purposes with their colleagues.

Share and capture learnings. How has this crazy time provided fresh perspective and thinking on what you do and how you do it? What are you doing now differently and how can you apply the best of that into the future? What best practices from one part of the organization make sense to implement broadly?

And now a word about your Marketing team: They are putting on hold that big product introduction and have dropped promotional advertising (and hopefully replaced some of the spend with messaging that keeps your Brand from dropping completely out of sight in a market filled with people who suddenly have a lot of time on their hands, even if they aren’t buying your wares). Consider deploying Marketing resources that might be underutilized during the market shutdown to research and develop go-to-market actions appropriate to the consumer world that will begin to reopen in coming weeks and months, paying particular attention to social media to help get your tone right.

Finally, if your boss (the Chairman) is up for it, particularly if his/her name is on your buildings, encourage him/her to talk directly to your people to provide hope, confidence and inspiration. Here’s how Bill Ford did exactly that in a gigantic virtual town hall.

Need help getting your internal communications on point and with the right tone during the COVID-19 crisis? Click here to contact us today.