This post is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center. 

As the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe, businesses and their leaders are facing unprecedented challenges to adjust to the sudden and rapid changes, navigate through new realities, and sustain their business operations. Meanwhile, employees are experiencing challenges and stress due to the unforeseen disruption of their work routines, uncertainties regarding the impact on their job security, and concerns over personal health and safety.

In the midst of this chaos and uncertainty, anxious workforces are turning to their top leaders for information, guidance, assurance, and support. A recent study by the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) on how businesses are handling the COVID-19 pandemic, indicated that nearly half of the communication executives and senior leaders surveyed identified CEOs as the primary communicator about the  COVID-19 crisis. Undeniably, the global pandemic creates a wartime situation and poses a true test for CEOs’ crisis leadership and communication ability. They are not only expected to communicate clear and accurate information to help employees understand the situation, but also to support them in coping with practical and emotional challenges and keep the workforce motivated and engaged. The question is—how should CEOs communicate during the pandemic?

As someone who specializes in internal and leadership communication research, I did a literature review of 21 academic studies on CEO/executive leadership communication followed by a textual analysis of 12 published industry studies related to organizational and leadership communication during the pandemic achieved on the IPR’s website (see COVID-19 Resources for PR Professionals) and in IC Kollectif’s COVID-19 Communication Repertoire. Below are the themes I found that concurred across these academic and professional studies, which may provide some insights for CEO communication during the COVID-19 pandemic.

1) Be transparent. Transparency requires leaders to openly and proactively share relevant information to employees in a timely, frequent, and digestible manner, give accurate information regarding what is happening, what the impact is, how the company is handling it, and offer clear guidance on what workers should be doing. Transparency also means encouraging employees to speak up and share their opinions and concerns, listening to employees’ needs and wants; and being visible and approachable. Transparency and openness fosters trust and reduces uncertainty1; this is even more so during wartime. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has won applause with his open and proactive approach in communicating about the COVID-19 pandemic to the public by hosting daily televised briefings and being upfront with what he knows or doesn’t know. In a video message to the employees, Marriott’s CEO Arne Sorenson was forthcoming with the negative impact COVID-19 has on the company’s business and openly shared that the company has suffered “substantial economic losses” from the pandemic, which is more severe and sudden than “9-11 and 2009 financial crisis combined.”

2) Convey authenticity. Authentic leadership is not a new concept to the business community, and its effectiveness in generating positive employee outcomes has been supported by the bulk of academic and industry research. To communicate in an authentic manner, CEOs are expected to stay true to their values and beliefs, walk the talks and keep their promises. They are also expected to be self-aware of what they can do and be cognizant and upfront with their self-limitations facing this global enemy, and communicate genuinely and truthfully with employees — even when they don’t know what’s going on.

While CEOs are wired to take action, tough times like the pandemic cast monumental challenges to leading an organization. In an era where uncertainties outweigh the certainties, sometimes CEOs simply don’t know what to do. That’s okay. Leaders that authentically share some vulnerability can actually demonstrate the human side of leadership. Employees look up to top leaders for assurance and support. They do not necessarily expect CEOs to be superheroes. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos shared his genuine feelings and vulnerability in his message to employees. He wrote, “There is no instruction manual for how to feel at a time like this…My list of worries right now—like yours I’m sure—is long: from my own children, parents, family, friends, to the safety of you, my colleagues, to those of you that are already very sick, and to the real harm caused by the economic fallout across our communities.”

3) Show empathy. This is perhaps the most recurring theme in my analysis of best practices. In my recent study that examined CEO leadership communication during planned organizational change, such as a merger and acquisition, I found that communicating with empathy enhanced employee trust and drove employee commitment and acceptance to change.2 The COVID-19 pandemic poses similar challenges as a company-wide planned change would, as employees also face enormous uncertainties and experience negative emotions, such as fear, sadness, anxiety and frustration. When CEOs communicate genuine care for employees’ safety, concerns, and well-being; express sympathy to employees’ personal challenges; show understanding of what employees are going through; communicate that “your emotions are legitimate,” “I feel you,” and “we are all in this together,” it can help reduce employees’ feeling of anxiety and strike a deeper bond with them.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella demonstrated this simple act in a message to his employees, most of whom are now working from home. ” There’s no doubt that the workflow of our jobs is changing fast, with many of you doing so much of your work remotely for the first time, some while also caring for children at home. I myself am learning, as I’m sharing a home office with my two teenage daughters…There is no playbook for this and having that deep empathy and understanding for each other’s situations is needed now more than ever. ” he wrote.

4) Lead with humanity. Leadership communication with humanity first speaks to the “people first” mindset. It’s not the short-term productivity, profits, or financial performance that comes as a priority; it’s employees’ safety, health and well-being. We have seen more CEOs giving up salaries or taking pay cuts. Others, such as the CEOs of Citigroup, FedEx, and Bank of America have pledged not to lay off workers in 2020. In a recent article, “Leading with purpose and humanity,” published in Harvard Business Review, former CEO of Best Buy, Hubert Joy, also highlighted the importance of  “putting employees and human relationships at the heart of how a business operates” and shared how Best Buy is leveraging their backup child care service and offering mental support to assist employees in coping with the pandemic. Such CEO communication not only sends a strong message of leading with humanity but also conveys corporate conscience.

A second layer of humanity can be interpreted at a more tactic level, which emphasizes being human and real in CEO communication. When a CEO checks on how an employee is doing, or just sends a brief personal message, “How are you doing? Please stay safe and healthy,” it projects the leader not as a cold title, but a fellow human being who cares for the employees and someone people can easily relate to. My previous study on CEO communication style suggested that CEOs who communicate with a friendly, personable, human, and sincere tone are perceived as more likable and nurture employee relationships with the organization.During a time when social distancing, home isolation, and telework becomes the new norm, employees have a dire need for communications that can foster interactions and human connections. For CEOs, initiating or joining virtual social hours, participating in virtual talent shows, hosting virtual informal AMA chats, Zooming in with a cute pet, or sharing daily routines and fun stories on internal social media are just a few examples of being human and staying close to employees.

5) Demonstrate positivity/optimism. Conveying positivity or optimism is an important leadership communication attribute during challenging times like the COVID-19 pandemic, when it is easy for people to experience negative feelings and frustrations. While there’s nothing wrong with being sad or feeling down, to some extent, it is even healthy to acknowledge or savor “I’m not okay.” However, long-term wise, it is optimism and positivity that can truly make a lasting impact on both the organization and employee well-being. CEOs should be sensitive to their tone of communication, foster positive thinking of hope and gratitude, highlight the silver lining of the pandemic (point out opportunities that come with challenges), and balance optimism and calmness with vulnerability regarding the negative economic impact of the coronavirus.

A good example of this is Levi CEO Chip Bergh, who wrote a letter to employees encouraging them to focus on the crisis’ silver lining. “One of the things motivating me through this difficult time is the idea that we can learn and adapt and adjust so we emerge stronger as a result of this test,” he wrote. The crisis “will pass. We will get through this together and be a better and stronger company as a result of it.” And at my own school, University of Florida president Kent Fuchs reminded students and staff of their “tradition of pulling together and rising to meet major challenges with optimism and determination.”

Positivity matters, especially during wartime, when the company must ask more of its employees. Energy, optimism, hope, gratitude, collaboration, and resolve motivate, inspire people and pull people through this challenging journey.

Being a leader is a privilege. During extraordinary times like the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders need effective communication to instills trust, confidence, and hope in people–essential ingredients to winning the war.

Men, L. R., NeilL, M., Yue, A., & Verghese, A. K. (2020, March). Enhancing employee commitment to change through uncertainty reduction: The role of channel selection and communication transparency. Paper presented at the 23rd International Public Relations Research Conference, Orlando, Florida.

Men, L. R., Yue, C. A., & Liu, Y. (2019, June). “Vision, Passion, and Care:” The Impact of Charismatic Executive Leadership Communication on Employee Trust and Support for Organizational Change. Paper presented at 23th BledCom International Public Relations Research Symposium, Bled, Slovenia.

A shorter version of the article was previously published by The Conversation.

Rita Men, Ph.D., APR is an associate professor of public relations at the University of Florida and chief research editor of the Institute for Public Relations’ Organizational Communication Research Center. Connect with her on LinkedIn:

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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