Even Poor Leadership Communication Offers Lessons in the Time of Coronavirus

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Mar 30, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

There are plenty of writers supplying a takedown of the communicator-in-chief’s ability to galvanize the nation on how we combat this novel threat, or even to merely inform the country about what to expect. But rather than throw stones, I would like to focus on what leaders of any organization should do to truly lead their company, school, or non-profit in this time when questions are many and answers are few.

Address what people need to hear

First, true communication is not about what you want to say; it’s about addressing what your audience needs to hear. This means focusing on your audience’s needs or fears and giving them something constructive to think or do. Many fail this first test by concentrating their message on their own leadership. Real leaders know it’s not about them, but about you. Specifically, it’s about what your audience needs to know in order to safeguard what is in the best interest of themselves and those about whom they care. A true leader calms fears not with false optimism but with frankness. When leaders present the facts with confidence, they can summon their audience’s collective will to triumph over the challenges they face together.

Focus on transparency

Second, anything short of utter transparency breeds mistrust and can do more harm than good. This is even truer when the news is not good. Leveling with your employees, students, and faculty or volunteers about what you do not know, or about mistakes that have been made but for which corrective measures have begun fosters a basis for trust. If unflattering facts, or plain bad news, is withheld, then there is no longer a reason to trust anything a leader has said or will say. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced this week that it would no longer be publishing negative COVID-19 results, it went from an authority Americans inherently trust for real answers and leadership to an arm of the Administration’s communications machine.

Be constructive

Third, real leaders emphasize constructive actions that answer questions about what’s not yet known and develop meaningful solutions to the problem. This would look and sound more like, “We are ordering the development of 1.5 million coronavirus test kits which we expect to be available and nationally distributed in a matter of weeks,” than a soothing but entirely false statement that, “as of right now, anybody who needs a test can have a test—they’re all set, they have enough.”

I encourage CEO’s, in-house counsel, and other organizational leaders to address how COVID-19 is being planned for as it relates to their company or community. The three simple rules are (1) start with prioritizing what the audience needs rather than words that may put your leadership in glowing lights; (2) be one hundred percent transparent about what is known, but clearly address what may not be known yet about future plans, with the promise to communicate further; and (3) most every communication is nothing if it does not result in actions that will improve the situation. Motivating people to be part of the solution is the ultimate outcome of great crisis leadership communications.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.
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