A Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You: An Open Letter to American CEOs
Why you must say something about coronavirus every single day.
Dear American CEO,
“I feel like I have been hit on the head with a cow,” a Joseph Mitchell character once said (after he’d had a cow dropped on his head).
The coronavirus crisis is profoundly disorienting for every American — but none of us more than the top executives of large companies and other prominent organizations.
As our nation faces one of the greatest challenges in its history, people are increasingly looking for reassurance, guidance and solutions from you.
You saw who the president surrounded himself with in the Rose Garden last Friday afternoon — a half-dozen of your fellow CEOs — and you saw the Dow shoot up a thousand points, largely on the strength of their simple presence and bland declarations of confidence and willingness to help.
How did you and your fellow CEOs become America’s saviors?
You, long maligned for your compensation, the poster children in the prosecution of American income inequality.
You, long resigned to being dismissed by many as out for yourself and your shareholders first — and your employees, your society and your planet last.
You, long praised and promoted for your tireless, piercing, blinders-on focus — on your customer, your industry, your organization and your investors.
If you spoke publicly about any issue that seemed beyond your company’s immediate strategic interest — say climate change, or diversity — that was called “thought leadership,” and it was remarkable. And if you spoke about anything at all personal or controversial, like Apple’s Tim Cook talking about LGBTQ issues or Starbucks’ Howard Schultz talking about race, that was called “CEO activism,” and not always in complimentary way.
Now you’re the one who the president turns to for credibility, and the one the nation looks to for leadership in the crisis of our time?
You may not be wholly unprepared. You have probably noticed that with less and less public consensus on the authority of the president (or other government officials whose esteem has suffered from deepening cultural divisions), people need someone to turn to for a responsible, sensible, sustainable view on gun control, immigration, Black Lives Matter, healthcare reform, tax reform, #metoo and Greta Thunberg.
Ironically, what social activists long decried as amoral self-interest in CEOs, we all have begun to treasure as your sincere and grounding interest in maintaining profits in the short- and medium-term, which makes you accountable to a wide variety of constituents around the world. “Trump can pull out” of the Paris Agreement, said a participant at a meeting of CEO communication specialists. “But UPS can’t.”
And of course people aren’t turning to you merely out of rational default. There’s also an emotional need. In lieu of a commonly trusted national leader — an agreed-upon adult in the room — you’ve likely noticed that people have been looking to you to weigh in on matters you never had to address before. A mass shooting occurs or a beloved national celebrity dies, and increasingly employees and customers hope the CEO will issue a statement. (University presidents and nonprofit heads have experienced the same phenomenon in recent years, and they and their communications staffs often complain of “statement fatigue.”)
This president, whatever you think of him, is not the nation’s common comforter-in-chief. That’s you now — you, and your fellow CEOs and other leaders of American institutions.
The question is, will you accept the responsibility, or will you not?
Here’s what it will look like if you do:
• You will say something public about coronavirus every single day for the foreseeable future, even if you don’t have anything new to report. You can’t overestimate the stabilizing power of even the very minimalist, “As we said yesterday, we’re still working our plan, we’ll give you another update tomorrow,” pronounced in a steady tone by the CEO of an organization we work for, do business with, consider part of the economy. In a calm manner and at a regular cadence, people want to hear you say on behalf of your leadership team: “We’re here.”
• During these daily communications — preferably by video when it’s practical, so people can see your eyes and hear your voice and check your complexion — you will answer every reasonable question that you can guess and your communication staff can gather from everyone in your organization’s orbit, to the best of your ability. And when you don’t know the answer, you will say you don’t know the answer but that you and your leadership team will find it — thus retaining and even increasing your credibility, which is so precious not only to you but to the people who are turning to you.
• And to your relief, you’ll see yourself lose the communication inhibitions that have limited your effectiveness in the past. You’ll suddenly stop worrying about repeating yourself too often, or not being the very most credible leader to deliver a particular message, or misspeaking from emotion or a lack of information. At a time like this, there is no such thing as over-communication. Presence is everything, perfection is not a thing. And you almost surely will misspeak; and you’ll correct yourself as soon as you can; and you’ll be forgiven.
I realize this advice goes against what you’ve learned in your successful career as a disciplined executive, about communicating only when you have something new to say, about speaking strictly from your expertise and about saying nothing rather than risk saying the wrong thing.
But we’ve all been hit on the head with a cow.
And now, reeling American citizens all need the support of CEOs, and all the leaders of all the institutions that hold our nation together — just as surely you need ours.
If you step up, we will, too.
David Murray is executive director of the Executive Communication Council and the Professional Speechwriters Association, which publish Executive Communication Report: Coronavirus, a daily newsletter for those helping leaders communicate through the crisis.