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coronavirus encircling the globe

Leadership Through Communication Webinar Summary

Navigating the COVID-19 Crisis: A panel discussion with Cornell faculty discussing leadership communication insights that are key to effectively managing a crisis impacting their organization, workforce, clients and communities they serve.

The COVID-19 public health crisis has exacerbated the need for organizations and leaders to communicate clearly to various stakeholders. The goal of this panel is to discuss the steps to crisis communication, how to prepare internal and external messaging, and how to address questions and criticisms from stakeholders.

A panel includes Dr. Theomary Karamanis, senior lecturer at Cornell’s Johnson School of Management; Dr. Lynn Wooten, Dean at Cornell’s Dyson School; and Dr. Katherine McComas, professor at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Dr. Andrew Karolyi, deputy dean and college dean of academic affairs at Cornell’s Johnson School of Management, served as moderator.

Below is a recap of the discussion, including questions provided by the audience:

What is the key to successfully communicating during a crisis?

Dr. Karamanis explained that the main goal of the organization in communication is to establish trust and credibility. To do this, you need four elements to prepare communication, which forms the acronym SEAT:

  1. Speed: Going out fast allows you to be the source of primary information during the crisis and control the narrative. This also avoids employee misunderstandings and misinformation.
  2. Empathy: It is a common mistake to sound too professional. In a crisis, people expect you to care, especially if you have affected populations.
  3. Accuracy: There is usually a conflict between speed and accuracy, however, this challenge needs to be balanced.
  4. Transparency: Be honest, do not hide facts thinking people are not going to find out.

Five stages of crisis management (pre-crisis, start, maintenance, resolution and assessment) influence what message is appropriate. It is also important to note that crisis management is different than crisis communication. The latter is how the organization manages perceptions, how people feel and the attitude towards the brand.

How do people receive risk communication and what are their attitudes and incentives?

Dr. McComas shared that risk perceptions and how they influence people’s responses to risk lie in people’s subjective perception of that risk. In our perceptions, we tag on other characteristics: is the risk known to science, is it something we can control our exposure to, is it dreaded. It seems that the coronavirus is a grand slam of these risks.

What are some leadership competencies required in various states of a crisis?

Dr. Wooten acknowledged that MBA programs don’t prepare people to lead in these types of situations. However, she has identified seven competencies for leaders during times of crisis.

  1. Be in the business of signal detection. Look for crises, scan the environment. Consider how is this crisis going to impact you as a leader, team, organization and industry. Base decisions on data.
  2. Prevention and preparation. Engage in scenario planning and discuss how the organization can be agile if different situations occur. Think of the worst and the best cases to align resources.
  3. Containment. Crises will happen but we need to control the spread. This requires quick and ethical decision-making. Create a stakeholder map, identify key stakeholders and create plans for them. Communicate to build trust among multiple stakeholders.
  4. “This shall pass.” Think about business recovery and promote organizational resilience. The world is going to change so how will you and the organization capitalize and leverage change? Plan for continuity, strategic management and scenario planning to see how you compete to win in the new world.
  5. Engage and learn — before, during and after. Learning is the greatest competitive advantage. 
  6. Compassion and community. Consider how you are building community and also take time for self and community care.
  7. Manage information, data and technology

Leading in a global crisis requires a global mindset beyond domestic issues. The best leaders create mega-communities of corporate, nonprofit and government relationships to build solutions.

For example, South Korea has been exemplary. They learned from MERS in 2015 and involved the corporate sector (manufacturing to develop tests) and worked with the WHO. They also engaged in technological systems to develop complicated maps to track behaviors and locations to contain hotspots. This is a mega community that came together to learn.

How can organizations recover and adjust from bad information, especially bad information communicated through social media?

Dr. Karamanis shared that misinformation is given during a crisis; there will be rumors and myths. As leaders and communicators, avoid, as much as possible, misinformation coming from your own organization. She advises establishing a single source of truth with centralized communications for consistency and alignment even among different stakeholders. There should be a specific spokesperson who knows what to say and to whom. As well as structured feedback mechanisms to listen to people, like social media monitoring. Once misinformation is identified, it can be busted and clarified. And if a message has not gone through, communicate it again.

Dr. McComas added to not give legitimacy to conspiracies by engaging too much with them.

Dr. Wooten mentioned that leaders should have or create highly reliable action teams to produce reliable information.

What is the best way to communicate with people who push back?

Dr. McComas advised seeking to understand the underlying motive and barrier, try to understand where the person is coming from so the issue can be alleviated or addressed. Dismissing people as being irrational is not what you do; people always have rational reasons for behaving the way they do.

How does a leader share their own fears and anxieties in the effort to keep your team positive?

Dr. Wooten said, “We’re all human.” We all experience fear, panic, anxiety and worry. Starting the team meeting by expressing those fears and anxieties then sharing what you are hopeful or excited about is helpful. It’s important to come together multiple times a day. And it’s good to get insights from outside the industry to see how others are handling the crisis.

Dr. Karamanis emphasized the necessity for intra-team communication. Leaders are very stressed but want to show they are in control, sometimes to a fault. They need to show their own anxieties so the team will open up.

You are communicating but there has been a misstep, what do you do to regain or rebuild credibility?

Dr. McComas questioned how much trust was there to begin with and what kind of misstep took place. Though the context matters, it is generally understood that trust is easier lost than gained. Depending on how strong the trust was before influences how quickly you’re able to get it back.

Dr. Wooten shared that you have to have consistency to build trust. When you realize you made a mistake, be honest about it, communicate your action plan.

How much does one share in transparency?

Dr. Karamanis explained that you don’t need to share everything—but this is also not hiding. You give key messages per stakeholder group. Not everything is relevant to every stakeholder. There are different confidentiality, privacy and security issues that influence what you are and are not allowed to share. Overall, transparency is the sense that you are not hiding anything.

How do cultural differences impact messaging and the effectiveness of communication, especially when there are incumbent trust issues?

Dr. Wooten acknowledged that South Korea’s approach probably would not work in Italy or the United States. You have to customize the response based on culture, politics, etc., thinking about the cultural context and best practices.

How does one deal with stakeholders who are caught up in crisis management processes but not focusing on continuity after the crisis?

Dr. McComas encourages people to think about the longer view, think of the outcomes you want to create and steps needed to get there.

Dr. Wooten advised being in the here and now but having someone on the leadership team to challenge the long-term as well as offer opportunities to improve the organization. And keep hope alive.

Dr. Karamanis said you are not a good leader if you don’t consider the long-term view. However, in the middle of the crisis, especially one that is unprecedented, it is difficult to predict the future. So you also have to forgive yourself and leaders for not knowing what is going to happen a few months from now because it is an evolving situation. First, take the time to focus on yourself and manage your own anxiety and life.

Watch the recorded panel discussion.