Wednesday, 25 March 2020

You don’t need to talk about covid-19 and your company as much as you think you do

(Originally published 19 March 2020)

Good morning, everyone,

I wanted this morning’s Enterprise subject line to be something along the lines of “Can everybody please calm the [redacted] down?”

There’s no question that the covid-19 crisis is challenging — and it could get substantially more so. But the reality is that right now — today— from Egypt to KSA, the UAE to Bahrain, we’re so far in much better shape than are our colleagues in Europe.

Now is the time to list out business worries, prioritize them, and then make calm decisions based on the best evidence (or assumptions) possible.

That’s the job of a leader: To make decisions that ensure your company can weather the storm brewing outside your gates. To ask what you want the business to look like (and how you want it to be seen by investors, customers, bankers and partners) by the end of summer. Because the decisions we all make today will help shape the hands we all have to play in August — when the crisis will hopefully be drawing to an end, leaving us to complain about the weather as we pick up the pieces.

With that as background, here are today’s questions:

What should you be telling people about covid-19 and your company? And how often?

The answers: Probably not as much as you think. And definitely not as often as you think.

Most of you should not be sending out mass emails — and almost nobody should should be sending a press release. Information overload (and a sense of panic) are in the air. We all have a responsibility to not add to that.

Do not send out a press release or an email blast to your investors or your clients if all you can say is that you’re watching the situation, teaching your people how to wash their hands, activating your disaster recovery procedures, etc, etc, ad nauseum. That’s what everyone is doing, and people will grow tired of these well-meaning but empty updates. Instead, write this up as succinctly as possible and post it on your website. Make sure a copy of it winds up on your news releases page. Those who need to know will find it today — and it will stand out later as proof you “did the right thing” in the event that someone is doing due diligence on you in the future.

If you’re sending out mass communications, have a purpose — a specific problem you need to address with a specific group of people. That group can be huge, but you need to know what you want to say and why it matters to them right now. Why do they need to know what you want them to know?

The stakes are very different if you’re in a critical, high-risk or regulated industry, such as healthcare (hospitals, labs, pharma), food (both manufacturing and retail), banking and finance — the businesses to which we all turn in a crisis. Investors are fascinated by you right now, and your clients are very (possibly desperately) interested in hearing from you. They want to know you can still treat them. That they can still access their meds. That they can still make a withdrawal or deposit. Clients will be attentive. A press release may not get much pickup, but it will give reporters the right message. An email to investors will be read and noted. They need to know you’re prepared because whether you’re making snack food or keeping us healthy, we need you.

And if you’re in a critical industry, your customers definitely need to know if you have to reduce hours, close branches or simply … shut down for an indefinite period.

Think about what can go wrong. That’s when you do need to communicate — and when your comms will be judged — regardless of the industry you’re in. Plan out the scenarios. Write out your statements now (in both languages, please) so you’re not scrambling in a crisis. Keep your statements succinct and clear.

Let’s get you started: What will you say (and how would you actually handle):

  • A covid-19 case showing up in your workforce? (This is a key question now; it may not be if the virus spreads widely.)
  • The sudden disappearance of a critical production input because a supplier in another country has suddenly gone offline?
  • The incapacitation of a member of your senior leadership team?
  • A “shelter in place” order that limits people’s freedom of movement? A nighttime curfew?
  • An order that results in the partial closure of your distribution network / production facilities / branch network?
  • Reduced working hours?
  • How would you deal with price controls or quantity restrictions?

In either case, calls with interested investors are a great idea. But you need some ground rules:

  • Do not speculate about what will happen next — to your company, your industry or in the country — if the pandemic “worsens.” Do not offer guesses about what could be next (good or bad). You are not a spokesperson for your sector or country.
  • That said, you’ll be rewarded in the long term for being forthright about the circumstances on the ground.
  • There are numbers you’ll be more comfortable communicating verbally than in writing. Take advantage of this.
  • Keep your replies concise and factual — and try to bring “general concerns” back to the specifics of your company and how you’re dealing with what’s happening today.
  • Redirect the conversation to the long term whenever possible. People are having a hard time remembering that this too shall pass. There was a reason why she bought your share, and it had a lot to do with the fundamentals of your company, your industry and your country.

And remember from our last email: Now is the time to suspend guidance if you haven’t already done so.

But if you talk to the outside world a little, you should communicate with your people a lot. If you’re a lawyer, banker or tech outfit, people are your only asset. And even if your primary assets are intellectual property and factory lines, people are the glue that hold your company together. They want to know you’ve got this, because they depend on you for their livelihoods.

You have a duty of care to your people before anything else — there’s never been a better time to

  • Keep them updated on what’s happening at the company. Be honest, clear and as optimistic as possible (in a way that’s congruent with circumstances).
  • Let them know you understand that people are unlikely to be as productive when working from home as they are at the office given, you know, pandemic, screaming children and all these newfangled comms channels to manage.
  • Let them know salaries will hit their accounts on time.
  • Encourage other C-suite officers and department / unit / team leaders to look after the mental health of their people whether they’re in the office or working from home. If your HR team is worth its weight in salt, they’ve already started this process.
  • If you’re resorting to layoffs, do it as humanely as possible — how you communicate them (to say nothing of when and how they’re done) will have a lasting impact on your “employer brand.”

There’s lots going on right now, and it’s our jobs as leaders to know what to do next. That’s a lot easier when you’re calm and collected — and when your confidence helps anchor your team so they help you do what you need to do next.

Let us know if we can help.

Until next time: Be calm. Wash your hands. Look after your people. And be safe.

Patrick

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