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What You Can Learn From CEO Communication Blunders

COVID-19's first stage was a trial by fire for leaders - not all got it right

Through this spring’s COVID-19 pandemic, I have celebrated models of great CEOs who filled a trust void with meaningful external messages—and I’ve also seen some blunders. Here’s a look at what’s working, what isn’t and what to do going forward.

Avoid handwringing. A Greek chorus of sobbing is not helpful to anyone. Taking action is more meaningful than issuing bulletins claiming, “I feel your pain” or “our hearts and prayers go out to the victims.” Exemplary leaders like the CEOs of IBM, Apple, PepsiCo, UPS, AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, Morgan Stanley, Comcast and Waste Management moved quickly to provide compelling examples of how they were alleviating suffering in various communities, such as by providing personal protective equipment and needed supplies to healthcare workers or extending job security and continuity of benefits to employees.

Drop cheerleading in favor of straight talk and truth. Resist the urge to attempt to reassure people by proclaiming “this too shall pass,” “tomorrow’s another day” or “this is no worse than x, y, or z unrelated catastrophe….” While well-intentioned, such efforts are misguided, said McKinsey CEO Kevin Sneader. “Business leaders are optimists. We want to believe it is going to be okay,” he told me. But “this is not a time where point predictions can be made.”

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