Lessons from Tuesday's election: confidence, consistency are key

I'm going out on a ledge here, and writing this column two weeks before Election Day. There's a decent chance you're reading this after we know the identity of our next president. So if Sen. John McCain won the election, what follows won't hold much water. But, if Sen. Barack Obama is our next president, I think there are some lessons we should all consider.

I'm going out on a ledge here, and writing this column two weeks before Election Day. There's a decent chance you're reading this after we know the identity of our next president. So if Sen. John McCain won the election, what follows won't hold much water. But, if Sen. Barack Obama is our next president, I think there are some lessons we should all consider.

The last weeks of the campaign were particularly volatile due to intense problems with the economy. The quickly assembled bailout package, followed by the wild fluctuations of the stock market, created a crisis mentality, adding to the already combative election cycle.

During that time, most of the public felt that Obama presented fairly consistent thinking and leadership on the economy (whether or not you agreed with him), while McCain was seen somewhat as randomly developing one idea after another and spending a good deal of time criticizing his opponent. Indeed, these were among the key factors cited by Colin Powell to explain his endorsement of Obama.

Steady, consistent leadership is what we all want during difficult times, and that also goes for corporate communications. I've talked to many chief communications officers these past few weeks and most of their companies have been in semi-panic mode. Virtually within 24 hours of Secretary Paulson's pronouncement of a crisis, new policies were implemented at companies across America, such as travel freezes, hiring freezes, and new scenario planning (a lovely euphemism, don't you think?) with 10% or 20% cost reductions.

Reality is reality, and cuts must be made. But this is a time for leaders to lead. They must find ways to articulate a vision and communicate a plan to keep their companies and their employees focused on true north. Staffers shouldn't see leaders flail or complain; they want leaders to lead.

First, engage your CEO and others in communicating to your people what the company's revised vision and strategy are for the coming year. Your people know the world has changed; you'd best have a story that's more persuasive than just spending cuts. Your people are concerned for their jobs, their 401ks, their medical coverage, their very livelihoods.

Then, explain the plan and place tough decisions in the context of a strategy that's intended – over the long haul – to be in the best interests of employees, customers, and shareholders.

One other thing: The larger your company, the more likely your employees are to see your CEO as a personal link to what's going on in the global economy. If that describes your organization, it's especially important  that you get your CEO talking occasionally. If he or she doesn't, your people won't just feel fear, they'll feel ignored and disrespected.
 
Bob Feldman is CEO of Feldman & Partners, a communications management consulting firm. Bob can be reached at bob@feldmanandpartners.com. Bob's monthly column focuses on management of the corporate communications function.

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