The power of clear leadership during a crisis

19 March 2020 | 5 min read | News
Clearly Team

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Our world has been turned on its head in the past week.  The COVID-19 pandemic, which has already been having an unprecedented impact globally, has now reached our nation. Within a matter of days, it has shifted the way in which we all live, work, and interact with others in society.  It’s unprecedented.

Businesses and retailers are now closing their doors to customers.  Workers are being encouraged to embrace remote working and avoid unnecessary travel, wherever possible.  Major sporting and entertainment events are being cancelled globally.  And in the latest step to control the spread of the virus, schools are imminently being closed across the UK.

There is the distinct possibility that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Simply put, lives are being derailed and put on hold, and it’s unsettling. There is a prevalent feeling of uncertainty, with everyone asking: what’s next?

It is precisely at times like this that the need for strong, expert leadership truly rises to the fore. 

The pervasive public sentiment in the UK, to date, has been that the UK Government took too long to communicate the gravitas of the situation to the general public. We needed to to be led by clear messaging and firm directives – instead, we had to interpret an abundance of overwhelming information for ourselves and our families and make independent decisions after being faced with countless days of vague statements, arrogant claims that we could counter this through the controversial approach of developing herd immunity, and delays to necessary affirmative action that the rest of the world had already been taking. Health experts branded the UK’s response to the crisis “pathetic” – a lack of preparation that could now have extreme consequences.

Unlike many other countries globally, Boris Johnson, as our elected Prime Minster, showed reluctance to recommend crucial social distancing measures when they mattered most. It was only after public pressure reached a fever pitch and social media anger overflowed that the PM’s daily media briefings were finally announced, and steps began to be proactively taken to prevent the spread of this devastating virus.

As a result, we now find ourselves in a state of panic.

Again, it is precisely at times like this when expert voices matter most.

This is the time for genuine expertise, and for strong messaging to cut through the concerning noise and have its greatest impact.

This is the time for business leaders to stand out and lead.

Writing for Marketing Week, Mark Ritson rightly observes that: “Leadership is making the best possible decision and then sticking to it … What we are clearly currently missing in our government and across most of the dithering organisations in this country are people that make a call and then direct everyone to follow it accordingly.”

We are starting to see senior business leaders who have well and truly risen to the challenge that lies ahead.  Mike Coupe, SEO of Sainsbury’s, deserves praise for the practical and reassuring steps that he is taking to ensure that elderly and vulnerable customers – those most at risk – are supported during times of mass panic buying. Coupe’s tone and frequent communication to customers in the past week has been right on the money – alongside other major grocers, he’s doing what a leader should: putting in place measures to control the UK supply chain and restricting customer choice to enable business continuity.  Tough decisions like this are what’s needed right now.

But similarly, the hour maketh the man – and Richard Branson has demonstrated, in recent days, how one poor decision, driven by short-sighted economic pressures, can cause vast reputational damage in the long run.

The billionaire’s announcement that Virgin Atlantic staff must take two months’ unpaid leave in the next three months to help the airline cope with the impact has received widespread criticism, and rightly so.  Now is the time to protect workers and their families and reward loyalty – not turn away from a business’ most valuable asset: its people.

Clear and focused leadership is more important now than it has been in generations.  The messages that businesses provide their customers with right now must add value, knowledge and instil trust at a time of great uncertainty – and it’s just as important internally.

At times like this, it’s vital to use consistent and positive messaging within organisations – making sure that internal comms activity is reassuring and celebrating the achievements of hard work of employees. This encourages all workers to rally round and support one another.

Now is the time to consider what message you wish to communicate and who you want to reach during an uncertain period.

It is during times of crisis that leaders can shine. Now is the moment to respond to the challenge, with powerful messaging that will be remembered.