Since Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic, roughly 20 CEOs and CFOs have tested positive for the virus in the past few weeks. Many have chosen to post or email letters to their employees explaining how they are doing, whether they feel well enough to be running the company and if not, who is in charge. The president of Harvard University, Larry Bacow, posted one of the most memorable of these last month in a letter to students, professors and employees of the university.
It’s not known how many c-suite executives might have tested positive and decided not to tell their employees and investors. The Securities and Exchange Commission doesn’t require disclosures around the health of a CEO, and so far, that includes Covid-19—unless it becomes a "material risk." To be sure, most public companies chose to inform the market with a press release, a social media post or securities filing.
The spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic is forcing companies to make quick decisions about disclosure. Some key issues for the CEO, their team and boards of directors to consider include:
- Fast-moving situations: These situations are fast-moving, especially once an executive does test positive. These are trust moments, in which companies need to be ready to act quickly and decisively with the right messaging and sequence of events.
- Previous practices may not apply: The conventional approach to disclosures and messaging likely do not apply in this public health crisis, because a Covid-19 infection can escalate quickly from no symptoms, when disclosure is arguably not needed, to serious conditions needing hospitalization.
- Affirm who is in charge: When rumors abound, employees, investors and customers feel confused.
- Prioritize employees: Unlike conventional corporate announcements, the first audience to prioritize for a Covid-19 case should be employees. This will reassure them about the health and safety of their leader and the steps the company is taking to assure the health and safety of the team, as well as the continuity of the business. Internal memos are, however, likely to leak to the press, and companies are better off controlling the messaging with a press release or securities filing.
- Use a personal tone, rather than business: A Covid-19 email is first and foremost a personal update about an individual, their family and what they are doing to stay safe. A personal note from the CEO is the best way to set a tone for calmness and continuity and assure all that proper measures have been taken.
- Video is powerful: If a leader who tests positive is asymptomatic and able to continue working, the best way to demonstrate that is through video. If the executive remains strong and stable, showcase that. A video is also a powerful way to communicate the leader has returned to work in case he needed medical leave or hospitalization.
- It’s not a Regulation Fair Disclosure issue, but it is a public health obligation: It’s debatable as to whether testing positive is a “material” event. Notwithstanding, it’s clear there is an obligation to disclose a positive case due to public health concerns and the need for leaders to set an example of transparency.
- Opportunity to be a leader: When a CEO tests positive, it’s an opportunity for them to set an example for the community of being strong, brave and disciplined about the steps everyone should take to protect themselves and others.
- Admitting to testing positive: This removes the stigma and promotes togetherness in the fight.
- Tone and trust: Taking the right tone of empathy and calm will allow stakeholders to trust that they are part of the solution when told the truth about the facts.
Serena Saitto is Vice President, Financial Services Sector; Laurie Hays is Managing Director, Special Situations, Financial Services Sector; and Lex Suvanto is Global Managing Director, Financial Services Sector.
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