Updated: May 14, 2020
Companies, brands, leaders will be forever remembered by their actions and their words during ‘the biggest shock to modern life in nearly a century - Covid-19.’
So, who’s standing out so far with their words?
And, what can we all learn from this for our communications?
1. Show empathy – put yourself in your readers’ shoes
Emphasising with how your reader or listener is feeling right now has to flow all the way through your messages.
Satya Nadella’s email to all Microsoft employees hits the mark. How?
The subject line ‘Coming together to combat Covid-19’ reminds everyone that we’re in this together. His ending – ‘I count all of you as my colleagues’ reiterates this point of comradery.
Straight away, there’s an acknowledgement for the hard work everyone’s putting in.
‘I want to share my deepest thanks to each of you for the creative and collaborative ways you have stepped up to support our company and our customers during this crisis.’
This sentiment continues to be repeated all the way through to the end:
‘I want to thank you for your hard work and commitment during these tough times.’
Phrases like ‘heroism across the company’ also help to raise the status of everyone in Microsoft beyond simply being an employee and a number. It’s how every leader should aspire to make others feel – valued and part of a bigger whole.
What happens if you do the opposite and show self-interest or lack of care for your staff? You will damage your personal reputation and your brand for the long term.
Just like the boss of the pub chain JD Wetherspoons in his video message to all 40,000 staff. Or, like Brittania Hotels in their cold, formulaic, impersonal letter terminating employees contracts.
2. Be open and honest – don’t beat around the bush
The more frank you can be, the better. This is not the time to mince your words or hide behind corporate jargon and consulting euphemisms. Listeners in times of uncertainty appreciate even more someone who can tell it like it is, even if it’s bad news.
Alex Cruz, British Airways CEO did just that in his video and internal email to all 45,000 BA staff.
It starts with a sobering, decisive headline – ‘the survival of British Airways’. And goes on to say – ‘We are taking decisive steps to protect our cash position and to protect jobs. To be frank, given the changing circumstances, we can no longer sustain our current level of employment and jobs will be lost – perhaps for a short period, perhaps for longer term.’ Clear, direct, honest.
3. Get to the point – what does your reader/listener really need to know
This is not the time to write an essay or a science experiment – setting out the background and getting to the conclusion at the end. This is the time to be short, succinct. Reassure but also tell you audience what they need to know. Quickly.
The ‘stay at home’ message is ringing across the globe right now. And the short video by Italian Mayors is the best example of this.
4. Be confident – avoid the conditional tense and lead with facts, not opinion
This is the time for leaders to truly lead. And lead with confidence. This means avoiding the conditional tense – ‘this could happen’, ‘you should do this’. This creates a tone of hesitancy and leads to more uncertainty. So, as much as possible strike a confident tone. And if you don’t know, say so. Your audience will appreciate the honesty, rather than you trying to appear like an expert and know all the answers.
Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York is the stand out here. His morning news conferences are direct, clear and filled with facts.
He’s also brilliant at using lots of rhetorical devices. These enhance his communications and their stickiness in the audience’s brain:
- rule of three: ‘testing, testing, testing’, ‘ventilators, ventilators, ventilators’
- metaphors: ‘New York is the canary in the coal mine’
- repetition and emotive language: ‘We're going to make it because I love New York, and I love New York because New York loves you…And at the end of the day, my friends, even if it is a long day, and this is a long day, love wins.’
5. Be clear – talk/write naturally
Clarity across everything is now more important than ever. Avoid mixed messages, which will only cause stress and anxiety in your readers and listeners.
Jacinda Arden, Prime Minister of New Zealand, stands out in her address to the nation. Using simple, natural language, a clear structure, with moments of true empathy:
‘I understand that all of this rapid change creates anxiety, and uncertainty. Especially when it means changing how we live. That's why today I am going to set out for you as clearly as possible, what you can expect as we continue to fight the virus together.’
6. Be authentic – stay true to you and let this shine
Authenticity when you’re facing a crisis in your nation or your company is more important than ever. It builds trust. It stops you looking like a faceless-corporate. But it also needs to be consistent across all your messages, written and spoken.
Jacinda Arden stands out here again with her live evening Q&A via Facebook. And words like ‘excuse the casual attire, it can be a messy business putting a toddler to bed’ make her come across as a normal human being, facing the crisis together with her community.
7. And above all, stay human
Talk and write like a human being talking to another human. The more natural and sincere you sound, the better.
Arne Sorenson, Marriott CEO exemplified this perfectly in his video message to all Marriott associates.
He starts off by showing great vulnerability and authenticity by mentioning his current look, changed by his recent cancer treatment. He then goes on to say: ‘This is the most difficult video message we have ever pulled together…’ acknowledging the severity of the crisis and its impact on all Marriott associates.
Throughout, his tone is sobering, real, human and empathetic. Particularly in the last few words: “I’ve never had a more difficult moment than this one. There is simply nothing worse that telling highly valued associates, people who are the very heart of this company, that their roles are being impacted by events outside of their control. And I’ve never been more determined to see us through.”