As the world is combatting the coronavirus, organisations are in crisis mode. The virus – and also the communication about the virus – has instantly become a matter of decision at the top level. When it comes to communications CEO’s have an extremely important, but incredibly difficult task at hand. It is up to the chief communication officer to help business leaders achieve an unprecedentedly good performance. Communications has literarily become of vital importance.

CEO’s have to represent the short-term health and welfare interests of employees and at the same time represent the long-term interest of the company. Employee versus multi-stakeholders. Obviously, these interests are not conflicting. On the contrary. But let’s be honest, at this moment, it poses a challenging balancing act for communicators and CEO’s alike.

Choosing the right words, finding the right tone-of-voice, selecting the most effective channels, engaging the right media outlets, etc. It all has become of strategic importance. Especially now we know that business is more trusted than both government and media.

CEOs have to convince employees their welfare is paramount

I assume that every business leader takes employee health extremely seriously. And that they are doing whatever it takes to prevent the virus from spreading and protect the welfare of their people: People first. However, there is a huge difference between caring about your employees’ health and actually giving your employees the feeling that you care. Your workforce needs to believe that their welfare is paramount.

The best business leaders know how to empathize with feelings, insecurities and worries of employees. And they know how to translate this in communications and exemplary behaviour. 

Especially in these uncertain and frightful times, it is utterly important that the boardroom demonstrates its concern for their employees’ welfare. Business leaders have to listen and engage with employees. Boost organizational dialogue in the workplace. And ensure a climate is created in which people can safely talk about concerns, emotions and ideas.

Without saying, business leaders set the tone. They are present (even when working from home) and visible (if necessary via webcasts). They do not only talk about employees in their boardrooms but are willing to clean up their agendas to visit the work floor and talk to employees directly.

 

Acting and communicating, driven by a clear vision

But we all understand that CEO’s are also responsible for the organizations’ long-term continuity. And that CEO’s represent the interests of a wide range of stakeholders. Including shareholder interests. Absolutely, in case the coronavirus affects business results, drastic measures need to be taken immediately to minimize the impact. And the CEO has to take responsibility.

But a connected business leader acts from a clear vision. A credible and solid vision on the societal role of the company. Especially CEO’s who claim that organizations have a broader responsibility to society and who have communicated repeatedly that they can better serve society of they consider all stakeholders in business decisions have to put their money where their mouth is. (See also: New Business Roundtable Statement of the Purpose of the Corporation)

Business leaders should be careful not to use short-term developments as their main compass. Employees and stakeholders alike must be rest assure that leaders are driven by a clear vision. This vision determines the story told. A story that is communicated consistently and that resonates with employees, shareholders, clients, and other stakeholders.

CEO’s face intense pressure to put shorter-term shareholders’ demands first. If they yield to it by slashing jobs, short-changing suppliers or backing away from environmental commitments, their actions risk being seen not as inevitable responses to hard times but as corporate hypocrisy, shattering the public’s already shaky trust in business – ‘Coronavirus poses big test of capitalism’s stakeholder conversion‘, Andrew Edgecliff-JohnsonMarch 4, Financial Times

 

Balancing act

Business leaders need to perform a balancing act. And chief communication officers should do everything in their power to make it the leaders’ best performance yet. Communication has become of strategic importance.

How to convince people that the CEO represents the interests of all your stakeholders in these troubled times of corona? How can you be there as a CEO for all your employees and maintain the confidence of all other stakeholder groups?

One of the biggest risks CEO’s are facing is that they are being swayed by the issues of the day and that this negatively impacts communications. Chief communication officers must make sure that CEO’s know what’s going on, that CEO’s are visible, that their voices are heard, and their stories are compelling consistent and accurate. That is key.

We will soon find out whether CEO’s are able to find the right balance and strike the right tone in these times of Corona. I hope they do. Because they don’t have a choice.

Dear chief communication officers, your CEO needs you. Now probably more than ever.

Frank Körver

Frank Körver is partner and senior consultant at Wepublic. A consulting firm based in Amsterdam and The Hague. Frank is a EACD coordinator in the Netherlands.