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CEOs Discover Which Medium Is the Message

COVID-19 Weekly Culture Pulse Survey April 20-24, 2020

Clear messaging is vital during a crisis. Our most recent pulse survey shows that two less commonly used forms of leader communication have proven to generate a greater cultural impact during the crisis than other methods.


“The medium is the message” is an often-quoted motto attributed to communication theorist Marshall McLuhan, where he hypothesized that the medium itself can be as important as the actual message.

In this case, that medium is video. Yes, video.

Although employees reported that the most common communication modalities used to connect with employees included vehicles like email, team or department meetings, intranet posts, and text messages, those were not the channels with the greatest impact.

No, as carefully crafted as many company’s COVID-19 email updates have been, the medium with the biggest measurable impact has been video.

More specifically, video messages from senior leaders or CEOs (23.3% reported using) and virtual town halls (13.4% reported using) had the greatest impact. In this article, we’ll look at how both of these methods can be used most effectively during a crisis.


Medium 1: Video from senior leaders


This kind of video is exactly what it sounds like—a video recorded message of a single leader speaking directly to employees to stress the importance of the message.

More than 70% of employees say that video messages from company leadership make them feel more connected to senior leaders. On top of that, more than 80% of employees agree that videos like this help them see the “human” side of their leaders. Those surveyed also attributed these videos to a 57.6% increase in engagement.

Two recent examples during the crisis

Early in the crisis (March 19), Marriott’s CEO Arne Sorenson released a video directed to all company employees. In his message, he spoke directly and frankly about the realities of the COVID-19 crisis. He announced immediate measures like cutting his own pay and that of other executives by 50%. He was transparent about some of the negative or unknown consequences the crisis may bring. But his honesty helped build trust and understanding.

Another CEO, Mark Schneider of Nestlé, sent a video message to his employees in late March. His message conveyed great empathy to all of those affected by the global pandemic. He shared heartfelt sentiments such as, “We would like to recognize in particular our frontline employees and factory workers” and “The safety of all of us is paramount. We can only make positive contributions and live our purpose and values if we stay healthy.” Seeing a CEO share a caring and thoughtful message can make a great impact on employees.

How to make video messages effective

Don’t stage the background. A little humanity contributes to the power of the message.

Speak from the heart. Recognize the contributions of employees. Acknowledge difficulties. Be open.

Express genuine support. Use it as an opportunity to show a desire to support employees.

Another big indicator of the power of video messages? Employees who watched a video from a senior leader experienced a 346% increase in feeling supported by the organization—an important measure during crisis. But the study also found that videos should be frequent, with 44.2% of employees reporting some type of weekly video communication with a mid-to-senior level leader.

70.7% of employees report that video messages make them feel more connected to their senior leaders.


Medium 2: Virtual town halls


Another kind of video is a live event. A virtual town hall is simply a meeting inviting the whole town—or company—to participate in an online meeting. Using one of the many meeting platforms that have become very popular as many employees work from home, employees can participate in a meeting, and even ask questions.

The advantages are many. Our study revealed a 327% increase in employee net promoter score (NPS) when organizations employed the town-hall style format. Employees also felt a 156% increase in feeling supported by the organization, as well as a 70.6% increase in engagement.

Additional positive benefits of participating in a town hall is that employees feel up-to-date with company developments (84.4% agreed with this). Additionally, 66.7% of those surveyed said that the virtual town halls served to humanize their senior leadership, helping them to better get to know them.

A recent example from Apple

Apple CEO Tim Cook conducted a companywide virtual meeting on April 16. During the meeting, he reassured retail employees that they would be taken care of and paid during the pandemic (made possible by the billions of cash reserves the company has amassed). But he not only spoke of what the company was doing to help employees cope with the crisis, he discussed helping with the pandemic itself. This helped him humanize his message.

Cook unveiled a plan to produce millions of protective face shields for medical workers and other efforts to help track and combat the virus. He reinforced Apple’s commitment as a world leader and innovator.

How to plan effective virtual town halls

Invite all employees. Include the whole company when possible. If technology limitations prevail, the town hall should be recorded and posted for later viewing.

Schedule frequently. Organizations saw the best results when virtual town halls were held weekly, although bi-weekly virtual town halls saw comparable results.

Consider a Q&A format. Having some type of Q&A was critical to what employees perceived as an effective town hall. Q&As should happen in advance or during the meeting, not after.


Significant increases in Talent Magnet scores


All six measures of our Talent Magnet scoring (Purpose, Opportunity, Success, Appreciation, Wellbeing, and Leadership) were positively affected by both of these mediums. For senior leader videos, Leadership saw the biggest boost of 33.2%. And for virtual town halls, almost each area saw a double-digit increase, with the Success lever leading the way at 12.1%.


Stay tuned to our COVID-19 weekly culture pulse surveys for insights that will help your organization to weather the storm.

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