Read any article about communicating during the coronavirus pandemic and topping the list of recommendations will be the importance of being human and authentic. Yet for so many organizations, inserting humanity into their emails, letters, townhall meetings, and social media communication is perhaps the most challenging thing for them to do.
You wouldn’t think it would be hard to let the humanity shine through. But companies and organizations are so afraid of striking the wrong chord, of sounding insensitive, or of making statements that get them into legal or PR trouble, they say little or nothing. In fact, it is their very blandness, their lack of emotion when so many in their orbit are hurting that can make them appear tone-deaf. And even for social service nonprofits that are working to change the world, the language drills down to clinical terms devoid of the emotion that is the focus of their work.
So what does it take to be human when communicating? Here are a few ideas.
- Be honest always. Telling the truth may be your most valuable and important standard. Companies that try to sugarcoat layoffs, service declines, and closures simply will not be trusted. In any crisis, it’s never about the bad thing that happened, it’s how an organization (or individual) responds to it. In a previous post, I spoke of Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson’s powerful video informing employees that 80 percent would be furloughed. He spoke forthrightly and presented the company’s dire financial picture and why this action was necessary, but he also expressed compassion for those it would affect most.
- Be vulnerable. CEO’s want to project confidence. But confidence and expressions of emotion are not mutually exclusive. Going back to the Sorensen video, he actually choked up at the end. His authentic expression of compassion and empathy was extremely powerful.
- Be empathetic. Listen to others and what they are going through. Failing a personal encounter, imagine how their lives are affected. Then show that you understand how tough it is for your clients, employees, or partners. And give your team the space to talk about what they are experiencing. The best leader invests the time in finding out how people are doing, so check in frequently.
- Set appropriate expectations. This may mean you simply admit that you don’t know all the answers. Above all, don’t make promises you may not be able to keep.
- Answer the questions that might be foremost in the mind of employees, clients, customers, partners, and supporters. If you can offer information that might put their minds at ease, offer it. And if you don’t know or can’t say exactly what’s ahead, make that clear, too.
- Use simple, clear language and words that paint pictures. To say the virus has blown through our economy like a category 5 hurricane is much more vivid than simply noting that the virus has upended our economy.
- Be flexible. Remember that the hurricane has upended lives, as well as the economic landscape. And everyone you’re communicating with may need a little more room to adapt.
- Be hopeful but realistic. Find the positives—the commitment of your teams and the trust that your clients and customer have in you. Note those who are responsible, but always circle back to the challenge that may still lie ahead.
- Be grateful. When celebrating loyalty and dedication, remember to be clear that you are grateful to your team, your customers, your clients, partners, and supporters. Gratitude is an exceptional way of communicating that you care, especially when you do check in frequently.
- Exit gracefully. If your situation is dire and your business does have to close—even temporarily—exit gracefully. The end of relationships is the hardest thing to write or talk about. But by keeping your eye and your sentiments firmly on those who are most affected, you can be true to both your distress and your hopes for the future.