COVID-19 communication

As policymakers struggle with when and how to open up the U.S. economy and get people back to work, it’s been a case of two steps forward, one step back. In New York, for example, the governor had touted the success of social distancing, but then extended the “stay at home” measures.

For business leaders, this pressures planning and management, and also affects the morale of a company.

Here, in the last of a series of stories on “change management” and leadership during the coronavirus outbreak, WWD hears from industry leaders, consultants and brands who share their insights and best practices.

Antonia Hock, global head of The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center, which is a consultancy that works with retail brands and other organizations “to enhance their customer and employee experience,” the current climate is challenging for managers and requires leaders to communicate daily and do so with authenticity.

“Right now employees are inundated with stories, news and anecdotes that are all vying for their mindshare and attention,” Hock told WWD. “What’s more, employees are searching for reliable information on the coronavirus, and most of them expect their employers to be a go-to source.”

Hock said as a leader, it is “critically important that you share daily information and updates about what you are doing, how the business is changing, and what employees can and should be doing to contribute.” She said it is essential to “chart a path and then communicate it in a way that is fully authentic to you.”

“This is not a time to overly consider what you ‘should’ say. Be real. Be authentic. Be frequent in your communication,” Hock explained. “Also, I encourage leaders to use collaboration platforms with video versus e-mail. This is an important time to be seen and to drive connection. Great leaders are also building in time for teams to connect socially, have some fun and establish new norms for virtual relationships. Humanizing the work and ensuring that everyone feels authentically connected, fosters teams that can do their best work while facing adversity.”

For retailers, forging stronger connections with customers — despite the barriers of social distancing and store closures — is also vital.

“Community is more important than ever right now,” Jeff Lotman, owner and chairman of Fred Segal, told WWD. “We’re committed to our Fred Segal community and have been engaging with them through our social channels with dynamic content that goes beyond retail and shopping.”

John Frierson, president of Fred Segal, said the retailer “always strives to be nimble, which is especially important in today’s climate. We have repurposed retail teams into digital content creators overnight, taking the product that was exclusively in our store and offering it directly to our fans.”

For Shilla Kim-Parker, chief executive officer and cofounder of Thrilling, the digital vintage marketplace, told WWD that the “most important question for any leader during this crisis is: How can I serve? How can I meaningfully and genuinely step up to the plate, and give back to our community?”

Kim-Parker said from the company’s perspective, which involves “putting vintage stores online, is more urgent than ever. But our mission is to serve vintage small business owners, period. And right now they are all in crisis — they have shut their doors, and fear they may never be able to reopen, or recover from the financial losses.”

In response, Thrilling answered the call to serve by cutting its commission to zero for through May 31. The company also launched a fund-raiser “to get immediate cash in their hands” on its site where all of the profits to the 100-plus stores featured on ShopThrilling.com.

Kim-Parker also said companies need to “increase your brand’s EQ. Every person on this planet is facing heightened levels of personal risk. Quickly reassess all communications and messaging across all platforms for the next several months. Being tone-deaf in this moment will attract the kind of attention no brand wants and risk permanently driving customers away.”

And while leaders strive to avoid being tone-deaf, there are other behavioral traits that should be embraced — such as being vulnerable.

Cindy Conroy, former business executive turned TV personality and fashion stylist, told WWD companies and leaders might think they need to be a pillar of strength, “but this is one of those times when you don’t need to be.”

“Coming from a place of vulnerability shows staff you aren’t pretending,” she explained. “Things are awry and scary. Knowing you aren’t BSing them will ease their minds. Then they’ll be open to hearing your solutions about how your team will rally and pivot.”

Conroy also said managers need to welcome a willingness to fail. “We’re all treading unprecedented waters,” she said. “Preface and tell your staff this so they realize all ideas are truly welcomed. Between your inputs and theirs, the team will be just that. A true team that can weather the storm under your leadership and critical thinking.”

Jay Shifman, a mental health and addiction speaker, writer, consultant, coach and advocate and who is also the host of the “Choose Your Struggle” podcast, said the two characteristics he stresses most with clients is empathy and vulnerability.

“Businesses waste a lot of time on politics,” Shifman said. “Sure, if there’s something that the leader cannot legally talk about with their employees, that’s a matter into itself. But when a leader views themselves as sitting on the precipice, whether they are afraid of falling off or it’s an issue of ego, they speak, whether intentionally or unintentionally, from that place of higher power. We know the best leaders are ones that encourage others to fulfill their best selves. Leaders who talk down to their employees can’t do this.”

Shifman said when a leader is vulnerable, and when they show “empathy to their employees and really invests in them, employees see this and it changes the dynamic and the conversation.”

Lastly, active listening can make interactions with employees — and with customers — more grounded and meaningful. Matt Laukaitis, senior vice president and general manager of consumer industries at SAP North America, said the ability to listen is of utmost importance.

“This is a new time for all of us, and employees are dealing with uncertainty and new ways of working,” he said. “While many are socially distancing at home, it is important to recognize that many are alone and do not have the safety net of their regular in-store or in-office interactions. Mental health and wellbeing of your employees is important to monitor. On the customer front, your customers can best tell you what the future of your brand looks like — and how they will value and interact with your brand in the future.”

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