The importance of vulnerability in COVID-19 messages

As many leaders seek to engage their stakeholders and workforces around the issues posed by the coronavirus crisis, messages that acknowledge fears resonate.


There are many messages being shared by executives around the COVID-19 pandemic.

One common response is what consumers and stakeholders might expect: Leaders address the facts of the crisis. They acknowledge that things are going to change for employees and customers.

Others, however, take a different tack. They inject their own fear. They acknowledge what their audience is also feeling—uncertainty.

There is power in messages from leaders who are willing to talk about the elephant in the room—that we don’t know when this will be over, what the consequences might be, and how things might be changing all around us in ways we can’t yet understand.

Contrast the drumbeat for reopening the economy with that of Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson who received many plaudits for his heartfelt message online:

Another leader who models what it means to share their vulnerability is Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

He wrote in his message to employees:

We are in uncharted territory. Much is unknown, and I know how unsettling and uncertain this feels. Like many of you, there have been times over the past weeks where it has felt overwhelming and all-encompassing for me. I worry about the health and safety of my family, my co-workers, and friends. My wife and I worry for her aging parents, who are far away from us in India. I see the struggle in our local community, and around the world, the empty streets and restaurants, and I wonder when our social fabric will be restored.

Others have been willing to share firm economic data about how the crisis is impacting the business.

United Airline’s leaders wrote to their employees:

We want to share some numbers to help you understand just how bad the impact of the coronavirus has been on our business. As you know, March is typically our busiest month of the year. But this year, in just the first two weeks of March, we have welcomed more than one million fewer customers on board our aircraft than the same period last year. We’re also currently projecting that revenue in March will be $1.5 billion lower than last March.

The bad news is that it’s getting worse. We expect both the number of customers and revenue to decline sharply in the days and weeks ahead.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos also took a moment to share his fears in his note to employees. “There is no instruction manual for how to feel at a time like this,” he wrote. “My list of worries right now—like yours I’m sure—is long: from my own children, parents, family, friends, to the safety of you, my colleagues, to those of you that are already very sick, and to the real harm caused by the economic fallout across our communities.”

Vulnerability has a special power for those who use it effectively. It’s the key message of writer and educator Brené Brown:

How are you sharing about your concerns and fears about the COVID-19 crisis?

Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Looking for more insights on how to respond to COVID-19 and safeguard your organizations reputation? Join Ragan’s Crisis Communications Virtual Conference March 31.

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