What You Can Learn From CEO Communication Blunders

The first stage of Covid-19 was a trial by fire for leaders, and not all got it right. Some takeaways.

Through this spring’s Covid-19 pandemic, I have celebrated models of great CEOs who filled a trust void with meaningful external messages—and I’ve also seen some blunders. Here’s a look at what’s working, what isn’t and what to do going forward.

Avoid handwringing. A Greek chorus of sobbing is not helpful to anyone. Taking action is more meaningful than issuing bulletins claiming, “I feel your pain” or “our hearts and prayers go out to the victims.” Exemplary leaders like the CEOs of IBM, Apple, PepsiCo, UPS, AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, Morgan Stanley, Comcast and Waste Management moved quickly to provide compelling examples of how they were alleviating suffering in various communities, such as by providing personal protective equipment and needed supplies to healthcare workers or extending job security and continuity of benefits to employees.

Drop cheerleading in favor of straight talk and truth. Resist the urge to attempt to reassure people by proclaiming “this too shall pass,” “tomorrow’s another day” or “this is no worse than x, y, or z unrelated catastrophe….” While well-intentioned, such efforts are misguided, says McKinsey CEO Kevin Sneader. “Business leaders are optimists. We want to believe it is going to be okay,” he told me. But “this is not a time where point predictions can be made.”

Joe Ucuzoglu, CEO of Deloitte US, agrees. “Some people were advocating for saying, ‘We’ll be back to business as usual,’ when we had no idea what was coming. If you go out in advance of actually having the facts to substantiate those calls and the facts go against you, you will never get your credibility back.”

Instead, pull your team together and give them facts: “Here’s what we know and what we don’t know.” Invite in experts and pledge to work toward getting and transmitting the latest information in a transparent way.

Keep the lines of communications open. Jim McCann, founder and chairman of 1-800-Flowers, reports the company has been writing weekly to their customers and employees since mid-March. “Our letters force us to confess what we know and don’t know and, more importantly, focus on the questions where we would like their input.”

McKinsey’s Sneader broadcasts a weekly town hall every Thursday, fireside chats with colleagues every Friday and conversations with client company CEOs twice a week. “I feel like I’m running a TV station,” he says. “All this keeps us together. The amazing thing is the viewership; on average, the content is reaching 70 percent of our people [worldwide].”

Joe Ucuzoglu at Deloitte is also communicative. “I made an unconditional statement that I will answer any question any time. We’ve been leveraging a technology platform where anyone can ask any questions that everyone can see and vote on to prioritize.”

Expect a new normal. Forget the old expression “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Former Hudson Bay CEO Helena Foulkes predicts a reevaluation of values. “This whole thing is making us think about safety, not just about being in malls but about what we really need in life.”

For McCann, signs point to a fast-tracking of trends already under way. “Everything we thought would happen over the next five years evolutionarily is happening over the past few months, and we can be better for it,” he says.

Others see potential for a bigger role for both remote work and government in business. Ucuzoglu reports that the ability of Deloitte consultants to seamlessly leverage distributed technology and pivot to an entirely virtual model overnight exceeded his expectations. Meanwhile, Sneader suggests, “This isn’t the end of globalization, but things will change… government will have a much bigger role in the economy.”

Be forgiving. In operating through this crisis, missteps will invariably be made. Unless there is a pattern of intentional misconduct, encourage a culture of support and learning.