Opinion: Great leaders recognize impact of Covid on both external and internal audience

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THE Covid-19 pandemic was first and foremost a human tragedy that played out around the world affecting all aspects of life. No matter how detailed and specific an organization’s crisis management plan was, no one could have prepared for the unprecedented levels of disruption that companies had to face, writes Kayleigh Tinney

In March 2020 when the world went into lockdown, companies had to act fast, making swift decisions on how to adapt their communication strategies. Often, where organizations went wrong in a crisis was allowing their rash reactions to make them look unsympathetic and uncaring, not taking into consideration how people had truly been affected. For example, like most fast-food outlets, a global sandwich giant adapted its business model to allow for takeaway only services and introduced a new delivery service as customers were in lockdown. Although this strategy was a success, the same could not be said for its US crisis communications strategy. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the messaging on advertisements offered free masks to customers who bought two or more sandwiches. This was widely perceived as an opportunistic approach at a time when hospitals struggled to source these precious materials needed to keep front line workers safe.

On the contrary, many companies are thriving due to the success of its change in communications, when the world shut down and people were asked to stay at home. We saw commercial airlines offering planes as cargo flights to help with the shortage of supplies that many countries were experiencing. When the hospitality industry had to close its doors, we saw hotels offer free rooms for frontline workers, to keep their families safe from the virus. The sincere focus on empathy, wellbeing and community on all corporate communications, projected by these organizations set the standards high, and a global example for the rest of the world to follow. Even though their commercial focus was to continue operations and maintain a positive reputation, they put consumer needs at the heart of their messaging strategy and delivered the message with an empathetic and understanding tone. 

Throughout the pandemic, an organization’s internal communications became equally as important as the message being portrayed to the public. With thousands losing their jobs every day and respectable businesses shutting down, there was a need for CEOs to step up and provide reassurance. Since the early days of the pandemic, employees viewed corporate leaders as the most trusted source of information, especially with some Government communications delivering mixed messages and being less reliable in their responses. Great leaders communicated with employees directly, providing a clear direction, reassurance and putting employee wellbeing at the heart of their communications. An example of a CEO stepping up during a crisis to demonstrate leadership was Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson who sent out a video message to all employees expressing compassion and understanding for families affected by the virus. He communicated to employees that the pandemic represented “the worst disaster ever to happen to Marriott”, but went on to reassure them that the crisis would end and that they would be ready to succeed once again. A combination of decisive actions, clear messaging and, most importantly, human-centric communications delivered by the CEO demonstrated great leadership in guiding employees through the pandemic.

These unprecedented times saw the good, the bad and the ugly when it came to organizations adapting their messaging strategies in the heat of a global crisis. Due to poor communication, the reputation of many global organizations was under attack. In contrast, companies that delivered the right communications set the industry standard for what the public grew to expect. Although many focused their energy on reputation management with external communications, it took great leaders to recognize that employee wellbeing and an understanding that all disasters are human situations first and foremost was equally as important to lead the organization through this crisis.

Six months after graduating with a Communications, Advertising and Marketing degree from Ulster University, Kayleigh Tinney secured her first graduate role as senior PR client executive. She has recently been appointed chair of the new PRCA NextGen committee in Northern Ireland. Alongside the committee, she provides NextGen practitioners with information, support and advice.