As the world continues to enforce social distancing measures during the COVID-19 crisis, multi-unit brands are shutting locations and having to articulate extremely difficult decisions that have directly impacted the livelihood of employees. While no amount of corporate communications training can make delivering these messages less difficult, some stand out as particularly noteworthy examples of leading in a crisis.
Danny Meyer, Union Square Hospitality Group
Status: Closure of all restaurants. After several days of keeping employees on payroll, USHG made the difficult decision to lay off hourly and salaried employees.
Excerpt of CEO statement on USHG corporate website:
“In the 35-year history of Union Square Hospitality Group, this is, without a doubt, the most challenging period any of us has ever encountered as leaders. Reconciling who we are as a people-first company with this brutal moment is nearly impossible… We’ve always endeavored to put our people first, and so to conduct such a massive layoff of our cherished colleagues today leaves me gutted. Never could I have fathomed a time where the only path forward would be to lay people off so they can receive unemployment, while this company fights to see another day when we can return to our full staffing levels.”
Why it stands out: This statement in its entirety is particularly heartbreaking and is clearly the hardest thing Meyer has ever had to write. What it does is convey transparency on the agony of the decision and the path forward, while outlining USHG’s relief fund for those affected by layoffs. Meyer also put forward a video message, allowing him to speak directly to employees in an even more authentic way.
Arne Sorenson, President and CEO, Marriott
Status: Marriott is closing properties and furloughing affected employees.
Excerpt of CEO message from Marriott twitter video:
“I can tell you that I have never had a more difficult moment than this one. There is simply nothing worse than telling highly valued associates—people who are the very heart of this company—that their roles are being impacted by events completely outside of their control.”
Why it stands out: Described by Inc. as a “powerful lesson in leading during a crisis”, there is nothing about these 6-minutes that is sugarcoated. Sorenson’s statement has been called a masterclass in leadership, and not just because he announces forgoing his salary and cutting the executive team’s by 50%. Again, video as a medium delivers the gut-wrenching message with the humanity it requires, balancing the delivery of the decisions Marriott has had to make.
Emily Powell, Owner and CEO, Powell’s Books
Status: Indefinite closure of stores and staff layoffs
Excerpt of CEO message from Powell’s corporate website:
“I have always described Powell’s as resilient: lumbering sometimes, full of quirks and personality, but always resilient. We are having that resilience tested as never before. As you all know, we made the decision, with only a small amount of time to act, to close all of our stores over the weekend. We felt we could not wait a moment longer for the sake of the health of our community. We had hoped to find some way to consider this a short-term closure. Today, only one more day out from that decision, we now understand what we all must face: an extended, difficult period of significant measures to protect public health.”
Why it stands out: Emily Powell’s words are genuine and reflect a true affinity for her community and employees who were the heart and soul of the business. Her commitment to “keeping Powell’s alive for the next generation of readers and writers” delivers one authentic message to a number of audiences at once. The beloved bookstore has long been a cultural fixture of Oregon and the brand’s character jumps off the page.
The global pandemic has tested the leadership and crisis communication of CEOs in ways they simply had never been trained for. Those who have delivered their message with clarity, honesty, and empathy have stood out as leaders who understand the value of effective communication when finding the right words are nearly impossible.