Santiago de la Cierva, lecturer at IESE Business School: Communication in time of the pandemic

Crisis are a recurring, integral part of the history of humankind, especially the history of business. The biggest part of the coronavirus crisis happens within perception. How to communicate in the new reality successfully?

Any effective communication requires three elements: arguments, credibility and emotional connection. The three of them should be adapted to our audience. Which means, in order to communicate successfully during the pandemic, we need to use persuasive arguments, with a strong emotional connection with people suffering the consequences of the covid, and first of all show a credibly effort to serve them. So, the key words would be flexibility and adaptability.

News nowadays – especially negative – can spread like wildfire. How did media and communication impact the pandemic-induced panic in the era of COVID-19?

Generalizations are not very useful. Prestigious media have done a great job in spreading important information on the virus, its causes and how to protect us, while other media outlets took a sensationalistic approach. But in general terms, they played a very important role in fighting fake news spread through social media, which in the case of a pandemic are not trustworthy, I’m afraid. So, traditional media will come out of this pandemic reinforced in their social role. We need media which check sources and confirm true information.

Governments are facing tough decisions regarding restrictions – how far can we go, so the crisis doesn’t become more dangerous than the pandemic itself? In such a situation how to communicate with the entrepreneurs who suffered the most?

I’ve seen two types of governmental approaches: those who understand that companies are indispensable to society, and therefore they help enterprises with direct funds, reducing taxes, etc.); and those who don’t trust private companies because of ideological reasons, and prefer to help individuals directly. The first approach will help people and countries to recover faster, while the second will have long lasting negative consequences, because it will harm the economic textile of those countries.  So my recommendation is to channel most subsidies through companies, so people keep their jobs.

What skills should good CEO have to lead company in crisis (e.g. such as COVID-19 pandemic)? What is his role in the current situation, how can he motivate employees to act and help in reducing their fears?

Leadership in crisis requires a long-term vision, that helps people to do the right thing. It is more a time for collaborative negotiations than for competitive negotiations. We will come out of the crisis only if we cooperate among companies, and this requires a lot of creativity and positive spirit. Motivating employees is crucial, but it is not done mainly with words but with deeds: our employees look first at what the top management does. True leadership means leading with example in everything, from working longer hours to reducing their salaries more than the rest.

How can organizations learn from coronavirus crisis and will COVID-19 pandemic situation teach leaders how to avoid next market crush?

As any crisis, this episode can teach us a lot, mainly to understand better some risks we thought they were remote. I hope many companies will change business models to grow slower but safer: diversifying sources of raw materials from different parts of the world, better IT systems to allow people to work remotely, ensuring business partnerships with trustworthy companies, etc. Globalization will change deeply.

Why does legitimacy matters in crisis communication?

Legitimacy and trust are the most important element in human relations. Trust encourages relations, economic or else, while the lack of trust makes everything slower, more expensive and more complicated. But we can only gain trust with our acts, words are insufficient. Even more now, when there is no distinction between internal and external communications. We are in the economy of trust, we believe more in what others say than what companies say about themselves: look at TripAdvisor, Uber, etc. The more technologically advanced is our sector, the more we need trust.

Could you please give us some examples of good crisis communication management? And the bad ones?

Good crisis management starts not with the crisis but much earlier: the best investment in crisis management is in prevention. This means that the best examples are not public, because the crisis was avoided… That’s one of the limitations of our field: we learn from others’ mistakes. In addition, when it was not possible to prevent a crisis, a good and quick response will reduce harm both economically and in our reputation. Again, best practices will be hard to see. On the other side, bad examples are evident: Boeing for the accidents of the Max 737 model, to point one.

The research shows that every second Polish company has problems with communication. What barriers do companies most often encounter when trying to improve communication? What mistakes do they make? What is the key to success in communication?

In my view, companies and institutions who don’t pay attention to communication and consider it a technical department, miss the fact that the only way to strive and flourish as organizations is earning social consensus. Communications come before marketing: we need to be perceived as a beneficial player in our social context, before we start selling products or services. We need to communicate with those stakeholders different from our consumers: employees, neighbors, regulators and authorities, shareholders, media, citizens in general.

In this sense, communication is part of governance. Delegating communications is, in my opinion, one of the worst mistakes you can make. Just go and ask a CEO of a big company, how much time does he or she dedicate to communication, and they will tell you that more than 50% of their time. Actually, true leaders dedicate their time to strategy, crises and exceptions to the norms. And communication is part of the strategy.

How did communication in business change over the past 10 years?

Business communication has changed a lot because our world has changed a lot. Let me point out three elements. First, new technologies (smartphones and social media) available to everyone have a huge impact on companies. People demand more information about everything, there are more watchdogs than ever, and it is almost impossible to keep secrets. Transparency should be now the norm, not the exception. Second, political unrest and social issues demand from companies and their leaders to have a public role, which it was unheard of a few years ago. We are in the era of CEO activism, companies should embrace social change. Third, risk management has become very important in the daily life of a manager. Environmental, social and governance issues should be dealt with a systematic approach. And communication is a relevant element of these ESG risks.

For those reasons, and a few more, business leaders need to become well-trained communicators, because their mission requires from them to communicate. CEOs are today the best or worst showcases of their companies.

Prof. Santiago de la Cierva Álvarez de Sotomayor

Professor of IESE Business School.

Santiago de la Cierva experience combines the three sides of communications: journalism (as director of a TV news agency), corporate communications both in business and in the non-profit sector, and the academia, teaching institutional communications and crisis management in three universities. His current fields of interest are understanding how much communications the top management should know, how to lead the organization with a communications perspective, and developing protocols and best practices for using events as communication channels.

Last Updated on April 13, 2021 by Karolina Ampulska