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Executive Communication Report: Coronavirus

Beginning with the first issue—see below—we're offering ECR: Coronavirus gratis for two weeks—as a service to you, and to the public your leaders serve through sound leadership communication.

After that, readers who find it essential will need to subsidize it. On March 27, you will receive a notice asking you to pay a subscription fee, which will be renewable monthly. You may accept the offer and continue to receive the e-newsletter, or simply ignore the offer and stop receiving it, no obligation at all.

But it’s free for now, and we do hope you sign up. We want to help you help your leaders help all of us through this crisis.

Just click here and give us your name and preferred email, and you’ll begin receiving it tomorrow morning. —DM

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Dear Executive Communication Colleague,

Two comments that I’ve heard from your colleagues have stuck with me:

“I suppose this week is answering an important philosophical question,” said a leadership comms director at a major professional association. “What if there are speechwriters and no places left to speak?”

“This is a defining moment for us who consider executive comms both our career and calling—a moment for both action and internal advocacy,” said an exec comms chief at another high-profile organization.

The second comment is the answer to the first.

Right now there are no speechwriters, because there are no speeches. But your skills—in distilling information and helping leaders find words that will get through distracted ears to worried hearts and reeling minds—will be crucial to your organization’s response to coronavirus over the next days and weeks.

This newsletter is out to give you and your exec comms colleagues the most useful information and analysis every day so you can help your leaders lead.

We’ll round up what CEOs and other leaders are saying and we’ll tell you how exec comms pros are helping them communicate efficiently and credibly.

Part of that is getting information from you—ideas and experiences to share with your colleagues. To share with us, write to psaexecdirector@vsotd.com. We’ll read everything we get and we’ll use what we can.

Okay, let’s get to work.

Tone check: What CEOs are saying, and how they’re sounding:

The most prominent CEO communication over the weekend was Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, saying on CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday, “We’re in a war to contain this virus. The interesting thing is everybody has the same common enemy across the whole world. So, it’s a question of how we do that as employers?” Moynihan noted that Bank of America, along with other banks, is helping out consumers impacted by the virus outbreak with payment deferrals on credit cards and mortgages. “You don’t want people to be penalized because of the coronavirus, he said. On the economic front, Moynihan said, “This is a quick change from what was a solidly growing economy.” He added that banks are coming into this outbreak “with capital liquidity that is so different than the last crisis.” (Deutsche Bank CEO Christian Sewing made similar remarks late last week, assuring employees that the bank had “the financial strength to manage through this period.”)

Wynn Resorts CEO Steve Maddox told employees via video that they’ll be paid “whether you’re in a closed outlet or you’re working there,” according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Though “our business volumes are going to be basically empty over the next few weeks,” Maddox said, “that to me is not our concern … our concern is that we all get through this together.”

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz sounded a similar tone, pledging “solidarity” with employees in the coronavirus crisis. “This is, indeed, a crucible moment for United, when our mettle will be tested and the strength of what we’ve built proven out,” they wrote. “And we will emerge stronger and better than ever because of it.”

Who’s doing most of the internal exec comms in your organization? At about a third of organizations, it’s the HR chief; at another third, it’s the CEO, according to a quick poll conducted during a Consultants Collective webinar last week on employee communication during coronavirus. But that’s trending in one direction. “As the fear grows, it’s becoming the CEO,” said webinar co-leader Sharon McIntosh, who is member advisor for the Executive Communication Council.

Cautionary tale: Literally and figuratively, President Trump is gathering CEOs around him to bolster his credibility; but there’s a danger he could tarnish theirs in the process. To wit: President Trump said Google CEO Sundar Pichai apologized to him over the weekend, presumably for the embarrassment caused after the company issued a statement clarifying the president’s Rose Garden remarks Friday. At his Sunday briefing, according to Tech Crunch, the president had erroneously said 1,700 Google engineers were working on a website that would help Americans get screened for coronavirus. Google’s communications team got pulled into Trump’s Sunday rebuke, too. “I want to thank the people at Google and Google communications because as you know, they substantiated what I said on Friday,” said Trump. “The head of Google, who is a great gentleman—said—called us—and apologized. I don’t know where the press got their fake news, but they got it someplace. As you know, this is from Google [holds up printout of Google’s statement on Twitter]. They put out a release [drops the paper on the ground] and you guys can figure it out yourselves and how that got out and I’m sure you’ll apologize.” On Sunday CEO Pichai published a blog post neither confirming or denying his apology, but clarifying, “COVID-19: How we’re continuing to help.”

Several CEOs have tested positive for coronavirus: Universal Music Group’s Lucian Grainge, Cedric Francois of Apellis Pharmaceuticals, and Philip Jansen, CEO of British telecom giant BT. Beyond their initial reassurance that operations will continue steadily, we’ll keep an eye on their communications.

Last week an exec comms pro asked our help in convincing others in his organization to stop “saving” the CEO for later in the crisis—for a moment when he could say something more authoritative and reassuring. Dow Chemical’s CEO communication director Fletcher Dean responded strongly:

In most crises, calling in some support before bringing the CEO out is the right approach. It’s classic crisis communications strategy because most of the time the crisis is the organization’s own making and it’s preferable to let someone else take the initial brunt of the criticism. The CEO can come in later, clean up any missteps, and be seen as the voice of reason.

But this is NOT that situation. This is not of the organization’s own doing. This is an outside force acting on your organization and terrifying your colleagues (at least terrifying the smart ones). In times like this, the absolute best source is the CEO. The CEO sets the tone, sets the pace of communication, sets the goals and priorities, and—most importantly—reiterates the organization’s values. Everyone else follows the lead of the CEO.

Yes, use your VPs, your directors, your department heads, and line management. They play a critical role, too, of amplifying the message and ensuring the unique details for individual groups are answered. They also serve as that necessary listening role and relaying important questions back up the line. They’re vital components of your communications.

But they cannot—on their own—set the tone and reinforce the top-line values. Employees need to hear—from the top—words that reinforce trust and confidence, stability and strategy. They need to know you have a plan and that plan is being led by the person at the top. That’s for the CEO. GET THAT CEO OUT OF THE OFFICE AND DEMONSTRATE THEY CARE!

Dean mentioned the “pace of CEO communications on coronavirus”—at this stage, I believe it should be daily, and I’ll have a full-throated argument for that in tomorrow’s report.

Until then,

David Murray, Executive Director

Executive Communication Council

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