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3 Ways CEOs Can Communicate Effectively in a Post-COVID-19 World

Perhaps at no time in the history of U.S. business has the role of CEO as an organization’s primary communicator been more important.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing challenges of 2020 and 2021, many CEOs have taken center stage to speak directly to their employees and customers, providing equal parts safety information, business updates and emotional support.

While the COVID-19 pandemic will one day pass, CEOs can’t afford to retreat from the limelight. The past 12 months have created new expectations, not just about active leadership, but about the how, when and where it’s brought to life and shared with all stakeholders. Where a press release or annual report might have once sufficed, audiences now are looking for agile, decisive and direct communications from CEOs on an ongoing basis and across mediums.

The stakes couldn’t be greater. In a year of uncertainty, CEOs’ communications are what set an organization’s agenda more than ever before. These communications connect your leadership with your geographically and digitally distributed employees and give the next generation of talent an intimate peek into how your organization functions. And, if done half-heartedly, your communications position you to risk losing the public’s trust at a mission-critical moment.

As SJR has found, there are big benefits to embracing these new expectations. During the early weeks of the pandemic, our CEO Leaderboard rankings found that the executives who communicate frequently while expressing empathy and support for their employees and customers saw the highest reputational scores. And in a recent assessment of leading executive communications following the Capitol riots, we found a similar set of factors influencing positive perception of statements made.

Given what’s at stake, CEOs have every reason to improve their communication skills. The following are three lessons learned from some of today’s smart CEO communicators.

Keep it real

Garnering the trust of audiences who might be skeptical of a CEO’s motives is no easy task. That’s why it’s critical for CEO messages to come across as genuine, not as canned communications crafted by a marketing or communications team.

A prime example of authentic communications can be found in a Stanford Graduate School of Business video interview with incoming Walgreens Boots Alliance CEO Rosalind (Roz) Brewer, released in October. Talking about some of the biggest challenges she has faced in her career, Roz embodies her philosophy of leading with her “head and heart.”

Discussing how she, as the COO of Starbucks, managed an incident of racial bias at a Philadelphia store that became a national-level story, Roz tells a deeply personal anecdote about her immediate reaction to the incident. She said that seeing the wrongly arrested men hit her hard: “My son was the exact same age,” she said, “and I realized this could happen to my son any day of the week, and I was actually terrified.”

Deftly weaving together both her strong personal values and business operation skills, she tells a compelling story of how the company transformed itself and its policies to ensure an incident like that didn’t happen again. Throughout the interview, she continually makes the connection between who she is as a leader with the changes she’s championed across her tenure at different businesses.

The upshot: Roz Brewer has developed a strong reputation not just as a master of busines transformation, but as a truly authentic leader and advocate for a more inclusive way of doing business.

 

Embrace storytelling

For CEOs accustomed to delivering financial results to investors or delivering an approved statement during a moment of crisis, telling a good story may not be top of mind.

But sharing a compelling tale, particularly a human one that paints a real vision of leadership, can go a long way in engaging audiences.

As we found in our analysis of CEO responses following the Capitol riots, the statements that resonated most not only embodied an executive’s authentic voice, but put forth a moral vision intimately connected to their organization’s priorities — as well as painted a clear vision of tomorrow.

This statement by Enrique Lores, CEO of HP, serves as a great template of what that looks like. Instead of condemning the unrest in generic terms, he set up a story: “Growing up in Spain, I know firsthand that the world has always looked at the United States as a beacon of freedom and democracy.” He then connected that to his, and HP’s, larger vision: “Our shared humanity, resilience and resolve must guide us forward.”

Speak like a servant leader

Back in 1970, Robert K. Greenleaf, a former AT&T executive, coined the term “servant leader” to describe leaders who focus primarily on the growth and well-being of the people and the communities to which they belong.

Fifty years later, the idea of servant leaders has gained new relevance as CEOs broaden their focus beyond profits to include social responsibility.

But how do servant leaders communicate their values to stakeholders? They do so by embracing causes and by becoming vocal spokespeople, as did former Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson.

For many years, leading right up to his recent and untimely passing following his battle with pancreatic cancer, Arne worked as a highly visible advocate for important social causes: sustainability; improving diversity, equity and inclusion; and pushing for better access to healthcare for all.

Even when Arne had to make hard decisions, including furloughing many employees due to the drastic impact the pandemic had on Marriott’s business, he did so with great accountability to them. In an emotional video message, Arne delivered the news directly and with a great deal of empathy while also announcing he would forgo his own salary for the year.

It’s no wonder that the vast outpouring of sentiment celebrating his legacy, from employees to peer CEOs, note the transformative change he oversaw at Marriott and his integrity, humility and commitment to causes greater than himself.