Maintaining Healthy Reputations During a Pandemic

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With the world fighting a pandemic, most organizations are making very difficult decisions in order to survive. But what varies from company to company is how these decisions are being handled and communicated. And that is an issue because when we finally emerge from this global crisis, employees and other stakeholders will remember how they were treated.

With so many businesses struggling and with marketing efforts toned way down for the foreseeable future, it’s hard to build a brand right now. But you can still support your brand reputation via thoughtful leadership and treating people right. This can inspire hope while generating confidence in your company’s resilience. And since the reputation of your brand—not to mention your personal leadership and the culture of your company—hinges on how you operate during these difficult times, best practices in corporate communications have never been more important.

When I talk about communication, of course, I’m not referring to sending out a bunch of well-edited e-mails. I’m talking about bringing your people along on a mutual journey by letting them know where things stand and where things might be headed. I’m talking about checking in with your employees, and offering help. I’m talking about really taking care of your people, which requires honesty, transparency, and empathy. This always matters, but right now it will make or break your reputation in the months and years to come.

In other words, forget about “massaging” the message. Now is not the time to hide behind corporate speak or puffery. Be real. Be willing to have the tough conversations and explain the challenges your organization faces from the heart, showing humanity and humility as you help your people understand what’s happening. Make sure you let all concerned know how deeply you empathize with their personal challenges and show genuine gratitude for their contributions.

A good role model for pandemic communication can be found in Queen Elizabeth II’s address to the United Kingdom a few weeks ago. There was no sugar-coating, no advice, just genuine thanks and reassurance. So, ask yourself: Are you thanking people over and over and over? Is there something you should be doing because it is the right thing to do—like paying employees more? Are your communications direct, clear, and brief?

Remember that it is okay if you don’t have all the answers to employee questions. An honest acknowledgement of that fact can have a positive long-term impact. Instead of thinking, “Here’s another corporate message that says nothing,” your people will have thoughts like, “Our CEO was incredibly open and vulnerable in today’s townhall.”

If you’re being forced to cut salaries or break other employee commitments, a sincere apology can go a long way. But words in such cases are not enough. You need to show that you’re personally invested by making sacrifices as well. A senior leadership team that protects its own salaries while cutting others’ will quickly be written off as self-serving, and believe me, that reputation will stick. But leaders who take pay cuts along with their employees (or who even take bigger cuts to make up for the pay differential) will be respected as team players, and may even find themselves revered as inspirational.

Mind you, being an inspirational leader is about much more than grand gestures or rousing speeches. Inspirational leadership comes from action. Rather than staying at home, Weston executives are working alongside their teams, helping to stock grocery shelves. Consider how your leaders could get into the trenches with your teams. In fact, take the long view: this could be a great opportunity to establish practices that will permeate your company long into the future. Set the standard now for how you will operate for years to come.

Consider this a stretch challenge. Think way outside the box to find creative ways to join your teams in their day-to-day efforts. If you aim to do more and go further than anyone else, and every other leader at every other company does the same, think of all the amazing things we can do. Seize this opportunity to truly exemplify what it means to lead.

“Don’t assume you know how anyone is feeling. After many weeks of communicating to employees, it’s time for leaders to really listen.”

Listen and get personal. Don’t assume you know how anyone is feeling. After many weeks of communicating to employees, it’s time for leaders to really listen. I’ve been advising my clients to survey their employees or to hold virtual coffee meetings with small groups to ask people how they’re feeling and what help they might need. The idea of going back to work may be creating anxiety among your people that you haven’t anticipated. What they tell you will be essential in defining what your company’s new normal will look like.

Think ahead. We’re not likely to get an instant “all-clear,” so when things finally start to improve, there will still be a gradual transition back to any semblance of normalcy. Employers need to respect their employees’ individual situations and, importantly, their individual fears. Listen with compassion, and don’t be shy about getting personal. Ask them directly: how do they feel about the prospect of eventually venturing back to a “normal” work environment? Find out what you can do to help them feel comfortable and safe—and then act on it.

In the meantime, encourage your people to stay connected, stay healthy, and have fun. A role that may be new and even non-traditional for you as a leader is that of health and wellness coach, but it’s one you should certainly embrace. Health advice might once have seemed strange coming from a business leader, but today it might just be exactly what your team needs. Encourage your people to prioritize family needs and self-care. They may need to help their kids with schoolwork, care for an aging parent, get out for a (socially distanced) walk, or simply take some quiet time to themselves to de-stress. Let them know that you don’t expect them to be at their desks from nine to five.

Highlight how employees can look after themselves while social distancing by sharing information from trusted sources. My recent favourites include:

While you’re at it, help your teams see the lighter side of things by sharing a regular dose of humour and fun. Maybe sponsor a team challenge or contest. I heard about one company running an at-home beer-brewing competition, with a taste test planned for whenever the team is back together. You could run a photo contest, asking people to share selfies of their current work environment with their new “co-workers.” Even a simple team check-in with fun images in people’s backgrounds and no business on the agenda can go a long way toward maintaining connections.

The need for open and transparent communication, of course, is just as vital with customers and partners as it is with employees. Be honest in every interaction. If products are going to be delayed, let customers know right away. And share good news as much as possible. Many companies are making adjustments to help protect the public, like MasterCard and VISA increasing tap limits to help people shop securely with more peace of mind, or courier and furniture delivery services offering contactless delivery. Think through changes you can make, engage your employees in coming up with ideas, and communicate the changes widely with your customer and partner base.

My main message is this: how you treat your people during this crisis will establish your reputation for years to come. The business world is no longer well-served by stiff, overly massaged corporate messaging delivered by leaders who stand apart from their teams. What we need are leaders who work side by side with their people, who share tough news with compassion and empathy, and who make transparency their top priority. We need leaders to be real people, unafraid of showing their humanity. When this pandemic is over, that’s who will have made a lasting impact.

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