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Mary Mazzoni headshot

4 Things Every Leader Should Be Doing To Respond To COVID-19

Veteran purpose communicator Sheila McLean of Markstein outlines best practices for business leaders grappling with their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Mary Mazzoni
business leadership in response to COVID-19

The horror and uncertainty of the novel coronavirus pandemic has left business leaders looking for answers, as they grapple with how to support their communities while maintaining their operations and keeping their workers employed. There is no single solution, but approaches based on research and data can help us wrap our heads around this thing and respond the best we can.  

In another resource worth bookmarking: Marketing communications agency Markstein leaned on research and case studies from multiple sources to inform a white paper that lays out advice for business leaders and how they should respond. Purpose communications veteran Sheila McLean, who spent 17 years at MSL before joining Markstein as president of Mid Atlantic operations, elaborated on her team's findings in a webinar this week, co-hosted by TriplePundit's parent company, 3BL Media. 

"The pandemic has had a profound impact on our psyches, our ways of working, healthcare, education and certainly the economy," McLean told business leaders, communicators and journalists on Tuesday. "To get through this crisis and move toward recovery, there are four best practices that we have found through our work and research that organizations should follow." 

1. Embrace humility 

In times like these, “emotional intelligence, calm, humility and optimism are just as important as experience,” Markstein concluded in its research. 

"Embracing humility is really critical in a crisis like this since there's so much we don't know," McLean explained. "The basic tenets of good crisis management still apply, and in fact we can see them being exhibited every day by some of our best leaders: Be transparent, provide frequent updates, don't lie or speculate, take responsibility." 

Markstein outlined three best practices for internal and external communications (emphasis mine): "Leaders should be open about what they know and what they don’t know. They must find the right tone and the right message. When appropriate, leaders should take responsibility for their actions or failure to act.”

"It starts with just acknowledging that this is hard, listening to your employees, and really being open to the things that are the most helpful to them," McLean advised. 

2. Overcome fear 

The nature of the coronavirus pandemic is one of uncertainty, and it naturally raises serious questions for business leaders looking to do the right thing for their organizations, stakeholders and communities. But McLean and her team cautioned leaders not to let fear tempt them into inaction. 

"The surefire way to guarantee you don't survive [as an organization] is to do nothing, so we have to be careful to not let the fear and all of the uncertainty paralyze us," McLean advised. "The truth is that we're all going to make mistakes, especially in a situation like this that's evolving almost hourly. The important thing is that we learn from those mistakes."

She pointed to the example of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. "When [he] shut down the season, everyone thought he was crazy," she said. "Just minutes after his first player tested positive, he announced that he was putting the season on pause at a cost of more than a billion dollars. But since then, at least 15 others in the NBA have tested positive, so it's pretty clear that Silver's action likely kept the virus from spreading even further." 

Indeed, surveys conducted by Forrester Research indicate that while employees are increasingly concerned about the spread of the coronavirus, most now believe their employers "have their well-being at heart." "This really tells us that at least most companies are doing the right thing and clearly communicating," McLean said. 

3. Prioritize people and purpose 

“There is growing evidence that consumers are paying close attention to how companies treat their employees during this crisis and how they align their purpose and unique abilities to address the unprecedented health and economic needs,” Markstein noted in its research. 

McLean elaborated further, underscoring that every step companies take must connect back to who they are as an organization — and their reason for existing beyond making money. "Your response to the crisis has to be connected to your purpose and your values, just like your communications about your business have to be," she said. "Consistency is critically important. The actions you take, no matter what part of the organization you're talking about, they have to align with who you say you are."

Perhaps nowhere is this most important than with how companies treat their employees. Still, in our newsroom here at TriplePundit, we've seen no shortage of self-important press releases cross our desks, touting a company's donation of this amount or that, while their employees speak up to tell a very different story.  

McLean has noticed the same, and she offered a simple and forceful message for business leaders: Don't even go there. "Some companies are aggressively promoting their contributions right now and looking for credit for doing good, while their employees complain that they don't feel safe coming to work because they have no hand sanitizer," she said. "Consumers, shareholders and other stakeholders are going to see right through that."

4. Combine offense with defense 

Shortly after the Great Recession of 2008, a trio of Harvard Business School researchers spent a year studying corporate strategies and performance before, during and after three other global recessions that occurred in 1980, 1990 and 2000. The resulting study, published in 2010, analyzed the three years before each crisis and three years following it, as well as the recession period.

Of the companies studied, 17 percent did not survive: They went bankrupt, were acquired or became private. Around three-quarters (74 percent) barely made it through, with most still not at pre-recession growth rates three years later. But 9 percent of the companies thrived, outperforming their competitors in sales and profit growth.

"The way that they did that was by finding the right balance between cutting and investing, between offense and defense," McLean said. "So yes, they reduced costs, of course, and they improved operational efficiencies, but they also invested in the future."

The novel coronavirus pandemic, with its widespread and tragic loss of life, is not like other recessions, but there are still lessons to be learned from what the researchers found, McLean said. 

Further, a new survey of 1,000 American consumers, conducted in late March, indicates the public wants to know about corporate responses, with only 15 percent saying they don't want to hear from brands right now. It also reveals that people's opinion of these brands will be heavily shaped by how they strike this balance between offense and defense, ensuring their survival while doing everything they can to provide for their stakeholders. 

Among the actions that brands can take, consumers ranked offering paid time off to employees affected by coronavirus-related closures highest. These were followed closely by measures to keep employees and customers safe, such as increased cleaning of facilities and offering special hours for senior citizens to shop.

Image credits: Manny Fortin and OSPAN ALI via Unsplash

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni