When I was a child my father told me what it was like on Sunday, December 7, 1941. He was at a professional football game and the public address announcer kept escalating calls for military personnel. It was clear that something was wrong. But even in an age of limited communications, the country was all on the same footing and understood what was happening within hours. By the next day, December 8th, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had addressed Congress and the nation.
Today, we live in a world of über communications. Yet with an eight-week notice, we have been caught woefully unprepared. Revelers went to bars to celebrate early St. Patrick’s Day in large numbers, despite warnings to avoid crowds. Heaven forbid the generation that warns us – correctly, in my view – against global warming would sacrifice a Saturday night for a rapidly escalating pandemic. Airports over the weekend were chaotic Petri dishes of humanity, as travelers came home to no rules and chaos.
Hospitals are flummoxed. They don’t know which visiting rules to apply due to an absence of clarity from the federal government. I can tell you from personal experience how confusing and painful it all is.
In past crises – 9/11, Wall Street and of course Pearl Harbor, the president and White House have been pillars of leadership. Crisis abhors a vacuum and it is now up to each of us to lead. How do we communicate now?
Give bad news upfront: People can handle bad news. They won’t like it, but tell it to them as soon as you learn it and tell them how you’ll work around it. Don’t ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist. In his first inaugural address, Franklin Roosevelt announced, “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly.” That’s still the right place to start.
We know you care: At first, it was helpful to get individual emails from companies saying, “we are open for business and we care about our customers.” In most cases, certainly for professional services firms, all your clients know this. We have been operating with some form of virtual communications for 20 years. Your clients expect you to be in business and work from home. If you are going to send out communications, what information are you adding to the mix?
Your internal communications is critical: Some of your employees are prepared to work in place for weeks or months; others are not. Some will suffer from social isolation more than others. Others need entertainment suggestions in a time without sports, movies and theater. Still others need cooking recommendations when restaurants are closed, grocery stores are often bereft of stock and food delivery is at best long-delayed. Our grandmothers knew how to do this. Help your employees feel more comfortable in the isolation. More team calls, Zoom conferences and check- ins. More firm-wide emails. The bad news of this pandemic is its good news. The fatality rate is low enough to allow this disease to spread. We will all be here in isolation for a while – now likely eight weeks or more. Focus on each day and know we will get through this. Help your employees see the calm after the storm.
Remind your team about routine and exercise: This is not a holiday. Get up at the same time, exercise however you can. Even during the Holocaust there are stories of athletes figuring it out, even if on a hidden flight of stairs. Going to bed at the same time and being at your computer at 9 am or earlier is important not only for you but for your clients. Routine saves our sanity.
Call your clients: “How can I help?” “What do you need?” Letting them know you care is more important now than ever.
No “Coronavirus sales or discounts”: Be thoughtful in your communications. Any communications which strikes you as opportunistic will be poorly received by the marketplace.
All stories have a news cycle: And so will Coronavirus. Already, the stories about celebrities and politicians’ spouses testing positive are on the wane. The disease is spreading too quickly for these stories to have much residence. Soon, the federal government will start speaking with one voice; stories critical of their shocking initial non-response will fade as more individuals and businesses coping – and not – will become a larger part of the media mix. Start to anticipate the story arc so you can plan for business as usual in this unusual time.
Plan to cancel: If you have a conference, a business trip or are about to launch a new advertising campaign, plan to reschedule, go virtual or reconsider. Plan now for the next 60 days.
Reverse engineer your calendars: With activities further out from June forward, reverse engineer your calendar so you can have go/no-go dates so you don’t have to play “whack-a-mole” when the time comes.
Leaders lead: Being a leader when the market is moving up is easy. We are in crisis now and this is when leadership is tested. Check in on people. Sending a text or a call lets people know you care. When in doubt, over communicate.
We will all get through this together. It may be strange to say it as we self-isolate, but let’s remember FDR, Winston Churchill and our December 1941 forebears: Keep Calm and Carry On.
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Richard Levick, Esq., @richardlevick, is Chairman and CEO of LEVICK. He is a frequent television, radio, online, and print commentator.
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