Embracing transparency will pay dividends.
Let’s say that you were the head of marketing for a well-known branded company when COVID hit. Or the chief communications officer during the social upheaval surrounding the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. You might just find a lot on your plate. The board’s firing flares about plummeting numbers. Your CEO’s circling the message wagons. Your customer base is stressed and leery, and social media’s keeping tabs on how your corporate social responsibility stacks up.
GEE, NO PRESSURE
But there’s more. The above quagmire is all public-facing. What about internal messaging? How do you communicate with your employees the delicate balancing act between their safety and the need to continue to operate during a pandemic? Furlough or layoff? Shutter and hang on or reimagine your business model? And how’s that company diversity look in the wake of BLM? Employees look at faces every day, who’s in leadership, who’s getting paid what. How does your corporate culture look now that there’s been a sea change in the way we look at race?
The obvious truth is, we’re operating on shaky ground. Now more than at any time in corporate history, nobody knows anything. Except maybe this: During this perfect storm of disruption, words matter. Because what you say and do during dark times will be more acutely remembered when the sun breaks through the clouds. So here is, perhaps, a word on which to hang your hat:
It’s the keystone of trust. If you’re authentic and consistent in your messaging and your messaging aligns with your brand, then your customers will trust you. And continue to buy you. This may have already been your SOP. But what happens when your customers take a closer look at how you’ve reacted to COVID, to BLM? Very different paradigms, but both fraught with the risk of negative market perception and plummeting sales. Worse, that one-two punch has been politicized into a haymaker and divided America into camps, which is to say your customers are, too. How do you please everyone? Well, you don’t.
FOLLOW YOUR CULTURE
Be who you are. Let your company culture dictate your PR. Have you historically been actively involved in your community? Are you known for your charity? If so, you’ve probably got a much wider on-ramp to respond to these times. The charitable giving and messaging in reaction to COVID and BLM will probably be received with thanks for your caring generosity—after all, that’s the kind of company you are.
But if that hasn’t been company MO, a different tack may be in order. Mark Twain famously said, “If you don’t have anything to say, don’t say it.” Obviously, you want to contribute in these dark times, to help causes, to make things better (and you should), but, please, do your best not to trumpet it. Avoid being the company that makes a grand gesture, heretofore out of step with public perception, then markets it to death. Online judgements are harsh (and viral), especially these days, and the court of public opinion likely will not be kind.
BE AS BIG AS THE MOMENT
Increased public scrutiny during disruptive time requires that the forward face of the company, its voice, CEO, president, CMO, whomever that may be, steps up their game in two distinct ways.
First, be human. Be empathetic to the struggle going on around you and don’t hide the fact that you’re struggling, too. It will help build more authentic relationships in the community and with other companies facing similar challenges. In this business environment, misery truly loves company.
Second, be prepared. Unfortunately, because of COVID, our human face is now visible only through Zoom or some other video platform. So embrace it, accept the art of it. Be well lit, frame yourself to best advantage, make sure your human face is seen and your voice clearly heard. Look at yourself as others will see you, and ensure that image conveys what you’d like it to.
If you’re being interviewed about your company, give it due diligence with capital Ds because, especially in this moment, “winging it” is flirting with disaster. Know the reporter and the outlet, who their audience is. Be facile with the points you’d like to get across, and make them thoughtful. Refine your word choices, provide sound bites, and rehearse until you feel like you’re truly representing the company ethos in your remarks.
Finally, studies have shown that your audience remembers less about what you say than about how you made them feel. When public-facing, be more your human self and less your corporate self. Your message will not only be heard, but felt.
Face it, if you’re leading a company, your employees are probably on edge. If they’re having to leave home and go to work, especially around others, no matter how careful the company’s been, their health can be at
stake—even fatally so. Pile on top of that the very real possibility of losing their jobs, and you’ve got a work force looking over their shoulder for the next bad news. They naturally want reassurance and answers that you may not be able to provide. Who knows where the economy’s going next? How can you expect to be reassuring when there’s nothing sure?
Oddly, times of great stress and disruption (like now) offer an unusual opportunity to step back from the madness and really take a look at what matters most, your people. Obviously, production, the market and sales figures are critical, but if the internal gears of the company, your workforce, are unaligned and out of sync, everything gets harder.
Presenting an authentic message to the buying public is one thing, but being open and honest with an entire production staff you’ve opted to furlough due to COVID requires a different skill set altogether.
If you’ve run the company as a benevolent dictatorship, all the big decisions made in the C-Suite and rolled out to be digested and acted upon, you’ll probably be less able to calm the madding crowd. But here’s the thing. If you’re an employee waiting for the next shoe to drop, knowing something is better than knowing nothing. That’s where transparency comes in.
Providing company-wide information in plain language about the market forces that threaten the company’s well-being, and why and how the tough choices are being made, while ominous, can also help bring everyone together into the same boat. If leadership is forthcoming about limiting damage, making judicious sacrifices and trying their best to keep the ship from sinking, then the rank and file will at least know they’re not alone in the struggle.
It’s also likely that there’s no better time for leadership to review and improve communications with their diverse employees. If you’re aware of the issues surrounding Black Lives Matter, and that the impact of COVID has been disproportionately devastating to people of color, then you must also know your diverse employees are having an especially difficult time. Their voices, their fears and concerns need to be known.
If you’re in company leadership, it might be a good idea to solicit those opinions, create a Zoom call, invite your diverse employees to speak their minds to the C-Suite, then sit back and listen. It promises to be emotional, educational, and almost certainly productive in terms of understanding and finding heretofore unconsidered ways to help.
Whether putting out a press release to the public or a company-wide memo, none of this is easy. And in the end, it’s not just words that matter. Being human matters too. Especially in times when huge disruptions can reveal the character of a company. But with solid leadership, a healthy company contributes to communities in need, comes together under a well-communicated creed, finds strength of unity, and lives to fight another day.