A communications staple during the coronavirus crisis is the CEO letter (i.e., a message about the crisis from the leader of a company). This is a particularly important communication because, if done well, it puts a human face on the company, succinctly explains what the company is doing to meet this unique challenge and provides an overarching theme under which all company actions and pronouncements can be understood and appreciated. With this approach, the company’s response can be seen as coordinated and purpose driven, rather than as a series of unrelated activities.
I have read and analyzed about 50 such letters from CEOs of companies that range from multinational corporations to small family businesses. (Click hereto see the actual letters with my annotations.)
There are four key message points of the best letters:
1. You are keeping people safe.
2. You empathize with the reader.
3. You are thankful.
4. Your business will survive.
Often, I found that letters were made more effective — more believable, more inspiring — by making three additional points:
1. Your business does important work.
2. This will make us stronger.
3. You are not hiding anything.
Below I have listed a few ways you can communicate each of these messages.
You are keeping people safe.
• Make it clear that the crisis has your total attention.
• State specifically what you are doing to keep employees (and their families), customers and the community safe.
• Show how you are “going the second mile” to address the pain that employees, customers and/or your community are experiencing because of this crisis — that is, how you are doing more than “business as usual.”
• Note that, in deciding what actions to take, you are following the advice and direction of trusted authorities, such as the CDC and WHO.
• Tell employees, customers and community members what they can do to help — like seek medical attention if they develop flu-like symptoms.
• Assure people that you are on top of the situation — you are monitoring the developing pandemic, have been monitoring it for a while and will not be caught unaware.
You empathize with the reader.
Speaking to the importance of empathy and shared sacrifice during this crisis, the word that showed up most often in the 50-plus letters I reviewed was “together,” most typically part of such a phrase as, “We’ll get through this together.”
• Express empathy in a personal, believable way — relating a personal emotional experience to which readers are likely to relate.
• Make it personal — use personal anecdotes, invite readers to contact you personally with concerns or suggestions.
You are thankful.
• Heap praise on and thank employees, being as specific as possible. Tell them how proud you are of them and specifically why.
• Heap praise on and thank customers, being as specific as possible.
• Heap praise on and thank medical professionals and others on the front lines, being as specific as possible.
Your business will survive.
• Provide assurance that your business will continue serving clients during the pandemic and will survive the pandemic. Talk about what you are doing specifically, especially if you have a business continuity plan and/or a pandemic response team.
• If possible, show how policies, procedures and technology you already had in place are allowing you to weather the crisis — demonstrating that you are a well-run business, one that is continually improving.
• Share your company’s values, purpose, mission, philosophy, culture, etc., and show how adhering to these values is guiding your thoughts and actions during this crisis — and will allow you to be successful.
Your business does important work.
• Show how what you do is important to customers and to the public welfare, if possible.
• Tell employees how important their work is.
• Point out what your business is doing to battle the pandemic, if possible.
This will make us stronger.
• Point out how something good can come out of this negative situation, such as how facing adversity brings out the best in people or how we will emerge as a kinder, stronger people from this trial.
• Show how your business is being innovative in meeting challenges stemming from this crisis.
• Note that we — your business, your employees, your customers, your nation, etc. — have been through tough times before and survived, even thrived. Note the age of your company (if it is at least 20 years old or so) to support the case that you have survived previous tough times, that you can be depended on.
You are not hiding anything.
• Promise to update employees, customers and the community as the situation develops — and follow through on that promise.
• Provide a realistic assessment of what is to come (i.e., this is likely to get worse before it gets better).
• Point out what is open as well as what is closed, what is operating normally as well as what is not.
The final test of whether a CEO’s letter about a crisis is well-done is how it makes you feel. A well-written letter will leave you feeling reassured — because the CEO was honest about both the dangers and the opportunities and made a convincing, fact-based case that he or she is personally doing all they can to solve the problem. A poorly written one will make you feel a little disgusted — because the CEO was trying to put the right “spin” on a disaster that she or he obviously knows nothing about and cares about even less.