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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 chief communications officer been more important.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many CEOs took center stage to speak directly to their employees and customers, providing critical safety information, business updates and emotional support.

While the coronavirus crisis will one day pass, CEOs can’t afford to retreat from the limelight. Even before the pandemic hit, business leaders faced pressure to address critical social issues, not just profits. That trend is only growing stronger as the world faces a host of dire challenges from racial inequality to climate change.

Last year, the Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of corporations, declaring that companies should serve not only their shareholders but also their customers, employees, suppliers and their communities.

As the stakeholder capitalism movement gains steam, CEOs who continue to do most of their talking via press releases and annual reports risk losing the public’s trust. Conversely, business leaders who’ve been effective in demonstrating support for a wide array of stakeholders have seen a clear payoff.

In fact, CEOs who communicated frequently while expressing empathy and support for their employees and customers during the early weeks of the pandemic scored high on SJR’s CEO Leaderboard, a ranking of the reputations of Fortune 100 CEOs.

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 department.

“CEOs should make sure that whatever is being said with their name ascribed to it feels like them,” said Kimberly Whitler, a former CMO and an associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. “If you’re going to humanize a brand by using the CEO, help us see some of the CEO’s personality.”

A prime example of authentic CEO communications can be found in a video message from Marriott International to its employees, released in March, featuring Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson. Sorenson exposes his human side even as he delivers some grim news.

The hotel chain CEO starts by sharing a personal struggle, noting that he is bald because he’s undergoing treatment for an illness. He then talks about the devasting impact of the pandemic on Marriott’s business and the drastic steps the company has been forced to take, including furloughing many of its employees.

Sorenson’s voice is filled with emotion as he states, “There is simply nothing worse than telling highly valued associates—people who are the very heart of this company—that their roles are being impacted by events completely outside of their control.”

The upshot: Sorenson’s message drew wide praise on social media, including such comments as, “This is how standup leadership looks.”

“People do not expect CEOs to be superheroes,” said Rita Linjuan Men, an associate professor in the department of public relations at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. “It’s OK to show some emotion, and it’s OK to be upfront about limitations. It’s about being genuine and being real.”

Embrace storytelling

For CEOs accustomed to delivering dry financial results to investors, telling a good story may not be top of mind.

But sharing a compelling tale, particularly if it’s a personal one, can go a long way to engage audiences. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos proved that when he recently testified before Congress alongside other tech moguls as part of a House antitrust investigation into the power of major tech companies.

In his opening remarks, Bezos relayed that he was born to a teenage mother who overcame significant odds to graduate from high school. His father, a Cuban immigrant, adopted him when he was four years old. From those humble beginnings Bezos went on to work on Wall Street and eventually launched Amazon out of a garage in Seattle.

“I was born into great wealth, not monetary wealth, but … the wealth of a loving family, a family that fostered my curiosity and encouraged me to dream big,” the Amazon CEO said.

How powerful was that story? Before Bezos began his remarks, he was at the very bottom of SJR’s Leaderboard, with a positive sentiment of just 37%. But after delivering the opening statement, his positive sentiment jumped to 52%.

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 Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen. In recent months Kroger has been active on two fronts, working to protect its employees and customers from COVID-19 while promoting racial equality. McMullen has been a highly visible advocate throughout.

For instance, in a video announcing a $5 million fund for improving diversity, equity and inclusion, the supermarket chain CEO voices concern and empathy for members of the Black community. He details the steps Kroger has taken to advance racial equality, such as opening channels for Kroger employees to share their experiences with discrimination, and creating a downloadable educational resource called “Allyship Guide: From Awareness to Advocacy.”

It’s no wonder McMullen recently ranked among the top 25 CEOs on SJR’s Leaderboard, while Kroger Co. earned ninth place on the 2020 Axios Harris Poll 100, a ranking of the reputations of the 100 most visible companies in the country.

“I don’t know what it feels like to walk in somebody else’s shoes,” McMullen says. “What I do know is it’s my responsibility to help make Kroger’s part of the solution.”