Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been rightly praised for his comments that history will judge us by our capacity for compassion in these extraordinarily challenging times. In crises, more than any other occasion, business veneers are stripped back – gone are the flashy marketing campaigns, the tweets that go viral, and veneer campaigns without meaningful purpose. Like a West End show without lights, music and dancing, organisations are left to tell the plain truth to their audiences.

And no more so than in our response to COVID-19. The curtain has been drawn back, leaders are being laid bare – and their employees, customers, and the public at large have an opportunity to see whether compassion was ever anything more than just fashion.

Tim Martin (Wetherspoons) and Mike Ashley (Sports Direct) are just two of the antiheroes of the moment – we all knew these two would star – but there’s potentially a cast of hundreds who may don the Emperor’s new clothes before the final act. This is a time when leaders must put their people first, through authenticity and compassion, rather than looking for a standing ovation for a polished performance.

The last thing the public wants now is a brand trying to make a name for themselves during the crisis without cause. For those who are able to contribute to their audiences meaningfully, there are some essential crisis principles to guide your communications on:

  1. Don’t wait for the script to be written

In a crisis, you never have as much information as you’d like. But often, your audiences aren’t looking for all the answers. They’re looking for empathy and understanding. They’re wanting you to look them in the eye and say, ‘I understand, or at least, I’m trying to.’ You must keep a regular cadence of information going to employees and customers. We are all in this together – but it’s lonely on Zoom and we’re inclined to forget it if you don’t keep saying it.

  1. Your audience doesn’t always expect good news

The mission of an organisation in times of crisis is to be empathetic, transparent, and do what they can to support their people. Your employees watch the same news you do and hear the same announcements. They know that these are exceptionally challenging times for everyone – it’s best to be open and honest, particularly when delivering bad news.

  1. Empathy and authenticity are more important than having all the answers

Online video conferencing takes us into people’s homes and personal lives. We can see that picture of your family, the photo from your last holiday, and the strange books you choose to read. This can be a huge benefit for developing relationships. It also allows us an opportunity to be our true selves – something that can potentially be more difficult in an office environment. This should be the starting position of leaders: to focus on being authentic, rather than the one with all the answers.

  1. Follow the category

Unlike the normal communications score, where you are pushing to be outstanding, this is where what the herd is doing matters. Be part of it and aim to lead it, if you can. Don’t be an outlier bad guy. You’ll be noted.

  1. Don’t use the crisis as a trojan horse to restructure.

Change is sadly inevitable as a result of the economic circumstances many organisations are now facing. But people should remain at the heart of all decision making. This is not an opportunity to bring in wider restructuring initiatives that had been in the pipeline if it’s done at the expense of people who could otherwise be supported by some of the available financial packages.

Remember, the curtain is open and the stage is yours. Everyone’s watching.