Employee Communications COVID-19 Materials

What to Do Now: Leadership Through Communication

By Starr Million Baker


All of the people I know are worried. All of our clients are worried. What do we say, when do we say it, how do we keep business going and get through COVID-19? There are a lot of ways to answer these questions, but the one I keep coming back to is “communicate.”

As simple as it sounds, it can be super hard to do. In many ways, crisis can make us freeze, but if we keep our thoughts and words to ourselves, we’ll just incite more panic. Information – even the stuff we don’t want to hear – gives us context, and that’s better than hearing nothing at all (after all, knowledge is power). Now more than ever, businesses have an obligation to lead through communication.

Here’s what I’ve got top of mind today, with the caveat it will likely change tomorrow.

Top three things to keep in mind as you read:

1) Internal comms IS external comms, and vice versa. This is a big mind shift required for communicators right now.

2) Remain flexible in all situations and know that what worked an hour ago may not work now.

3) Be as transparent, and as compassionate, as possible.

How to Lead Today 

Prioritize communications with employees.

Be clear, transparent, thorough, and supportive. Realize that every note you send or call you make can, and likely will, be shared with others internally and externally. On the flipside, make sure that any company news you plan to share externally, you give your employees a heads up first. Nobody wants to find out critical information related to their job from a social media post or a press release.

Up the frequency of your internal communication – WAY up.

I’ve been recommending by a factor of three, but that may prove to be conservative. Consider your method of communication, too – hearing voices and seeing faces can be comforting for folks working remotely. And let people know when they can expect to hear from you – this can be another calming factor.

Arm internal leaders with the ability to communicate – with employees, with partners, with customers.

Draft statements or create an FAQ, and constantly update them. Make sure everyone is on the same page and communicating the same message. Then empower internal leaders to answer the questions they can, and flag issues to you (or your COVID-19 comms taskforce) immediately. 

Constantly revisit your business continuity and crisis communications plans.

Stay abreast of changes in your environment and roll out information to your employee and customers as quickly as possible, before a local authority or government body does it for you. This includes business continuity plans, supply chain effects, changes in work environments, and so on. Be succinct, but thorough, and reiterate as much as is factual about business as usual (which is to say, business in this new, shifting environment).

Use all channels at your disposal to communicate any changes to partners and customers immediately.

Use email as your primary point of contact, and back it up with a statement on your website. Pin your public-facing statement (for partners and customers) to the top of your social channels – your employees will also read it. All of this alerts your audiences that yes, you too are aware of and are managing this crisis, while working hard to serve your clients and employees better than ever. 

How to Lead Tomorrow (Or, Later Today)

Create your single source of truth.

It might be a landing page, or updates in your newsroom, or perhaps a Twitter channel where you share COVID-19 updates if that makes sense for your business – and then share relevant, up-to-date information here. While it’s important to alert across channels, don’t use one channel one time and another the next – this goes back to making sure all your teams are on the same page and information isn’t siloed.

Let’s talk about relevance. 

I don’t mean “only talk about COVID-19.” But now isn’t the time to announce a rate increase for your customers either. If you’ve got company news about technology innovations; business model innovations; ways you’re leading that could motivate others; ways you’re thinking ahead for when we’re on the other side of this crisis – share it. Communicate that stuff. This is the biggest area in which we can lead with communication. Let’s help each other get through this quicker and come out better. Let’s NOT add to the noise with irrelevant, inauthentic chatter.

Think about other stakeholders outside of your employees, customers, and partners.

Spend some time – when you have it – thinking about this group and what they need from you. What about investors, prospective employees, vendors, analysts, media (as a target group themselves vs. a channel) – what might these groups need to hear from you?

Move faster. 

No one has time for that pretty PowerPoint presentation – just make a straightforward Google Doc and have everyone jump in with thoughts. Don’t schedule that video conference for a week from this Thursday, as the world will have shifted 10 times by then – just pick up the phone. 

Think about how you can help others in the business adjust.

Maybe the engineering team isn’t used to doing their stand-ups via Zoom – send them bullet points on how best to communicate via video.

Take time to listen.

Consider how your communications from yesterday (or earlier today) are resonating. Take a moment to listen to your audiences, adjust, and start again.

I know it’s exhausting right now and you might be asking yourself: why do I have to do this, again? But as communicators, we have an obligation to lead. So, let’s get moving.