27 Aug 2020 18:30 IST

Lessons on crises communication from the pandemic

Successful engagement helps executives garner support from stakeholders at a difficult time

As the Covid-19 crisis emerged, organisations around the world contemplated an uncertain future. Corporate leaders were put under the spotlight as rattled stakeholders — employees, customers, investors, and partners — looked to them to make sense of the unfolding events.

With the proliferation of social media, executives today are expected to respond immediately in the aftermath of a crisis, even as they themselves are trying to comprehend the problem. Poor crisis communication responses by organisations can severely dent employee and investor morale and erode trust reposed by customers. The Edelman Trust Barometer report on Covid-19 found that stakeholders place great value on executive statements, sometimes even prioritising them over statements made by the government.

Airbnb and Zomato stand out as exemples of thoughtful leadership communication during the Covid-19 crisis; the letters from their CEOs to employees and customers garnered plaudits, shaping a lasting positive image for the firms.

How can other business leaders replicate this success?

Drawing on cognitive research and in-depth surveys analysing multiple corporate crisis communiques, we found that effective crisis communicators exhibit five essential characteristics.

Provide clear and timely information

Crises are often marked by uncertainty and rapid changes. So, clear, transparent, and frequent communication is the hallmark of good crisis leadership. Deepinder Goyal, CEO of Zomato, released a public statement detailing the operations continuing through the lockdown along with hygiene measures taken to protect the health of employees and customers.

 

Deepinder Goyal, CEO, Zomato   -  BL

 

 

 

Goyal transparently acknowledged the need to preserve cash, instituting steps such as downsizing, temporary pay cutbacks, and reduction of real estate costs. Moreover, he scheduled a global town hall soon after to answer any questions left unaddressed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let your guard down

In difficult times, leaders are tempted to adopt a stoic stance in a misguided attempt to express strength. Instead, leaders should not be afraid to demonstrate humility and vulnerability. Sharing their feelings around the difficult choices they made augments emotional rapport with stakeholders.

 

 

 

 

 

Brian Chesky, CEO, Airbnb   -  REUTERS

 

 

 

 

In a much-lauded letter to his employees, announcing the difficult decision of cutting down 25 per cent of the workforce, Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky expressed his pain at the ‘harrowing experience.’ While admitting that he does not know ‘exactly when travel would resume’ nor ‘what exactly Airbnb’s future looks like,’ he expressed his unwavering resolve to rescue the business while remaining aligned with its core values.

 

 

 

 

Address audience’s needs

Compassionate conversation recognising the emotions of loss and anxiety faced by stakeholders makes them feel heard by the leadership. This has been shown to foster belongingness, improve morale and increase employee productivity. Chesky addressed the feeling of shame and insecurity often accompanying job loss writing “to those leaving Airbnb…please know this is not your fault. The world will never stop seeking the qualities and talents that you brought to Airbnb that helped make Airbnb.”

He followed through on his words by providing considerate severance pay, extending health insurance coverage, and providing support in finding new jobs. These steps made all employees feel genuinely cared for. Extending support demonstrates reliability and integrity; this reputational benefit helps the company build long-term relationships with stakeholders conferring a sustained business advantage.

Lay out next steps

Leaders can shift the tone from helplessness to empowerment by sketching out next steps for the affected and providing supportive resources. Both Zomato and Airbnb extended career transition support to those laid-off such as upskilling services, laptops, and connect with potential employers.

A crisis also presents an opportunity to revisit the company’s priorities. In response to the crisis, Airbnb chose to focus on its core operations, stepping back from projects such as transportation, AirbnbStudios, hotels, and lux. Goyal articulated Zomato’s post-Covid strategy as becoming ‘a transactions first company focusing heavily on a small number of large market opportunities in the food value chain’ such as food delivery and its hyper pure supplies platform.

Create purpose amidst turmoil

Research shows that purpose-driven organisations thrive driven by higher employee loyalty, productivity, and creativity. Leaders can create a sense of purpose by establishing the larger social impact of an organisation’s actions. For instance, Goyal pointed out that Zomato’s contactless deliveries promoted social distancing efforts while helping restaurants stay afloat.

Purpose can also be created by emphasising organisational vision and goals. Organisational identity can be reinforced by showing how the company’s core values guided its pandemic response. Chesky mentioned that Airbnb’s crisis response, focussed on supporting its host partners and employees, was driven by its values of ‘doing as much as we can for those who are impacted’ and ‘unwavering commitment to diversity.’

These fundamental communication lessons can serve as a go-to model for any business leader facing a crisis. Successful crisis communication helps executives garner support from stakeholders at a difficult time. It also has the potential to shape a positive image for the company that will endure long after the crisis has passed.

(Sonal Singh and Eshwar Agarwal are students of MBA, 2018-20 batch, IIM Ahmedabad)

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