In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, some leaders used their communications with stakeholders to exercise accountability, effect transparency and develop a tone at the top that was intended to promote trust. Some well-known CEOs spoke and wrote with candor, compassion and seemingly authentic positivity. But this pandemic made uninformed positivity — often in defiance of expert medical knowledge — a potentially compromising approach.
Many CEOs used language to set a strategic tone for their followers — variously of brutal honesty, compassion or confidence. They sought to encourage followers to have faith in their leadership. Some succeeded. Others failed. Some, it seems, were dishonest. What was clear is that no amount of confected positivity, often in defiance of medical knowledge and advice, could guarantee that followers would also adopt a similar attitude.
In many instances, an upbeat tone in language was driven by hubristic leaders who were implacably convinced that they knew better than epidemiologists and medical experts. In the case of (former) U.S. President Donald Trump, his unremittingly positive claims and musings reflected an air of ‘I know it all’. They were derided widely.
The economic and social crisis of the pandemic is distinctive. Whereas the effects of many crises in the past have been felt largely by a company entity itself (and to a greater or lesser extent by its immediate stakeholders), the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been pervasive. The pandemic has not just had economic effects for individual business entities but has posed a serious threat to the economic and social welfare of broader society and the lives of everyone. A distinctive feature of the oral and written communication by CEOs during the pandemic has been its change in frequency and mode of delivery. In periods of lockdown, many CEOs ramped up communication with their employees by embracing Zoom and other virtual meeting platforms. Many used informal online meetings to share information and experiences as a way of maintaining morale — for example, through virtual ‘happy hours’, town hall meetings and weekly all-company videoconferences.
Trump’s excessively optimistic pronouncements were
intended to convey one message: I am in control.
The tone of the communications of many CEOs has variously been emotional, self-serving and/or upbeat. Metaphors have been invoked for effect, including the clichéd: ‘When we get to the other side…’ This alludes to the anticipated time when the crisis will end. Hyperbole and misinformation have abounded. The spoken words of many national political leaders (in effect, their country’s CEOs) seemed to deliberately paint a rosy picture, often contrary to the expert opinion of epidemiologists, the findings of peer-reviewed medical research and dire public health statistics.
When confronted with the reality that the news is bad, CEOs should be completely honest and transparent. They should not engage in discourse that raises expectations falsely. Acknowledging bad news, plainly, pointedly and calmly, along with at least some aspects of a strategy to get to the other side, is the best communication policy.
Donald Trump made confident statements promoting untested drugs and proposed his recommended treatments to eradicate the virus. These have been ridiculed for offering false hope. At a press conference on April 24, 2020, he suggested that the coronavirus might be treated by injections of disinfectant:
And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks the virus out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning? I’m not a doctor. But, I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what.
The following day, Trump claimed he was being sarcastic. Nonetheless, his statements and overall language throughout the pandemic exhibited linguistic traces of the leadership dysfunction known as hubris. Trump’s excessively optimistic pronouncements in press briefings were intended to convey the message, ‘I know what we can expect, and I’m in control’. He wanted the spotlight to be on him. Instead of exhibiting any doubt by preparing for a worst-case scenario, Trump chose to act as Optimist-in-Chief, ostensibly to calm an anxious public. His ‘happy talk’ or ‘boosterism’ appears to have been intended to promote the well-being of the economy and financial markets — an outcome that was a critical element of his re-election strategy in 2020.
Other political leaders also exploited the power of incumbency to use language in a way that recklessly set an unrealistic tone of positivity for followers. In a statement on March 3, 2020 (three weeks before his own COVID-19 diagnosis), UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was apparently blithely and arrogantly unaware of the potential for his actions to lead to infection:
I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.
CEOs have made their share of inappropriate declarations too. In a letter to staff in May 2020, one of Australia’s richest persons, Gina Rinehart, executive chair of Hancock Prospecting, suggested a remedy involving intravenous injections of vitamin C and regular consumption of ginger, turmeric and lemon water. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, on March 19, 2020, predicted that there would be close to zero new cases in the U.S. by the end of April.
There were some laudable examples of CEO-speak during the early months of the pandemic. The [then] CEO of Marriott, [the late] Arne Sorensen, was praised widely for the honesty, clarity and transparency of his six-minute video address on March 20, 2020, in which he displayed strong emotion. He was visibly upset when announcing staff layoffs and in concluding that the pandemic’s economic effects would be greater than 9/11 and the 2007–09 global financial crisis combined. Sorensen backed his calls for strong financial control measures by announcing that he and other executives would take a 50 per cent salary cut. His address (available on YouTube) has been described as a powerful lesson in leading during a crisis.
A clear feature of the language of the pandemic has been that many terms, expressions, metaphors (‘flattening the curve’, ‘pivot’, ‘jab’, ‘lockdown’, ‘the new normal’) and acronyms (PPE for personal protective equipment) have entered our lexicon. Some neologisms have also appeared (e.g., quarantini, doomscrolling, covidiot). Some terms have become ideographs (e.g., COVID-19, social distancing) or cultural key words (unprecedented).
The unintentional (we think) mixed messaging has been remarkable too. Many CEOs have urged followers to ‘stick together’. This is an odd call in an era in which the mantra of the global pandemic was to engage in social distancing. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, for example, in his CEO letter for fiscal 2019 (published April 6, 2020) impressed on his fellow shareholders the “need to come together.”
Hyperbole has been rife. This is evident in the overuse of the adjective ‘unprecedented’. There are no shades or degrees of unprecedentedness; yet many CEOs have found quite a few things unprecedented. Some things may well be so, but many are not. The overuse of this term reflects little awareness or understanding of the H1N1 influenza virus pandemic (commonly referred to as the Spanish Flu pandemic) of 1918–19. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this [Spanish Flu] virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide
Similarly, the fact that the bubonic plague of the mid-1300s killed more than 20 million people in Europe — almost one third of the continent’s population — seems also to have been ignored. The Plague of Justinian (541 CE–542 CE, with recurrences to 750 CE) left a deadly legacy. Thus, in a COVID-19 pandemic setting (where the World Health Organization on August 25, 2021, reported about 4.5 million deaths), the word unprecedented no longer means ‘this has never happened before in the course of history’. Rather, the word has assumed the meaning ‘this has never happened before in the (limited) understanding of history possessed by the author’ or ‘this event is extraordinary and worth paying attention to’.
Through such misuse and overuse, the term seems to have lost its rhetorical effect and impact. CEOs should follow the advice of the New York Times stylebook: Use the term [unprecedented] rarely, and only after verifying the history. Then carefully specify the aspect that qualifies. What exactly have CEOs claimed was unprecedented? BlackRock Chairman Larry Fink, in his letter to shareholders on March 29, 2020, asserted that the ‘coronavirus … [was] … an unprecedented medical, economic and human challenge.’ The economic challenges posed by the Great Depression of 1929 to 1933 clearly did not seem to figure in Fink’s assessment.
Quite often the use of ‘unprecedented’ is associated with gross overuse of other extreme adjectives, such as ‘extraordinary’. Is this just sloppiness on the part of the authors? Or is it part of a broader rhetorical agenda of CEOs? Do they want to prepare readers for their impending announcement that poor operating and financial results were prompted by the pandemic? Is it part of a strategy to deflect attention from the unpreparedness of companies and CEOs to assess risk and the effects of a ‘Black Swan’ event, such as the emergence and global spread of the COVID-19 virus?
Through overuse, JPMorgan Chase’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, diminishes the power of the words extraordinary and unprecedented. He invests those words with new meanings. He uses ‘extraordinary’ nine times in his letter to shareholders dated April 6, 2020. Among the matters described as extraordinary are ‘things’; ‘lengths’ [to which the company has gone to help customers] (n = 2); ‘efforts’ [to lift up our communities] (n = 2); ‘times’ (n = 2); ‘crisis’ (n = 9); ‘extension of new credit’; and ‘team.’ Unprecedented is used four times variously to describe the ‘environment,’ ‘challenges,’ ‘times,’ and ‘situation.’
Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, has been an exception to the broader unpreparedness of CEOs (and their companies) to ponder the impact of a disaster or catastrophe actively. In a letter to shareholders dated February 22, 2020 (before the full implications of the pandemic were apparent), Buffett was prescient (and perhaps deserving of his sobriquet ‘Oracle of Omaha’) in observing that:
A major catastrophe that will dwarf hurricanes Katrina and Michael will occur — perhaps tomorrow, perhaps many decades from now. The Big One may come from a traditional source … or it may be a total surprise involving say, a cyber-attack having disastrous consequences beyond anything insurers now contemplate.
Indeed, consistent with Buffett’s view, there had been ample forewarnings of an impending global pandemic. The world confronted HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, avian flu in 1997, Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, N1H1 (swine flu) in 2009, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012, and Ebola in 2013. The pandemic-speak associated with COVID-19 seems to have been used to deflect attention from the brutal fact that many companies and their CEOs were poorly prepared to cope with a damaging pandemic or other catastrophic event.
The letter to shareholders of Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, published in early April 2020 and mentioned above, has been praised because it (metaphorically) threw out the usual template for a CEO letter to address the coronavirus crisis. However, before exploring some of the details of this letter, we first draw attention to how Southwest Airlines (SWA) enlisted ‘9/11’ as an ideograph, immediately after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York. An ideograph is defined as ‘an ordinary language term that warrants the use of power, excuses behaviour and belief which might otherwise be perceived as eccentric or antisocial, and guides behaviour and belief into channels readily recognized by a community as acceptable and laudable’. SWA seemed to use the phenomenon of 9/11 and phrases related thereto (such as ‘LET’S ROLL!’) strategically and symbolically as rhetorical currency to promote its own virtuosity.
Cynical observers in 2020 might have questioned whether the terms ‘coronavirus’ and ‘COVID-19’ were being used similarly, as an ideograph or universal whipping post, with strongly negative connotations. For CEO Dimon, COVID-19 was the cause variously of ‘hardships,’ ‘fears,’ ‘turmoil,’ and ‘further inequities in society’ (p. 14 of his CEO letter). Dimon’s attribution of agency here lay not with human executives and their lack of preparedness for a pandemic, but with the inanimate virus.
Dimon used ‘COVID-19’ as an ideograph, seemingly with the intent of absolving his leadership from any possible blame. This is consistent with a broad range of CEO communication that is directed to blame COVID-19 for companies’ misfortunes — and do so while overlooking that many companies had vulnerable business models and pre-existing financial ills. Rarely have CEOs confessed to the pre-pandemic reality that their management of capital, cash flows, risk and long-term planning left much to be desired.
Commendably, Dimon’s letter to shareholders is very frank in stating that the U.S. “was not adequately prepared for this pandemic” and that Americans “need to demand more of ourselves and our leaders if we want to prevent or mitigate these disasters” (p. 18). He then makes a heartfelt plea for higher levels of “civility, humanity [and] empathy” (p. 18) to improve America.
The middle of section 7 of Dimon’s letter criticizes the failure of America’s political leaders to adequately address a range of social ills: the quality of inner-city schooling, an increasingly costly healthcare system, the scourge of obesity, ineffective infrastructure planning, misplaced immigration policies and poorly designed social safety nets. He frames these criticisms with references to the ‘American Dream’ and constructs himself and JPMorgan Chase metaphorically as genuine patriots. His text invokes concepts such as liberty, equality and freedom. However, what emerges is a smarmy sugarcoated nationalistic eulogy that reads as if it was a deliberate parody of the worst excesses of an advertising copywriter.
Dimon begins with references to the “greatness” of America’s prosperity and asserts that it is blessed with “extraordinary [and unequaled] gifts” of freedoms bequeathed by the Founding Fathers and their promise of equality and opportunity. One can scarcely remonstrate with the public policy critique that follows, given the virtuosity of such a framing and the way it softens up the reader to Dimon’s following assessment. He adopts the high moral ground by calling for “non-partisan solutions” and urges readers not to lay the blame by “finger pointing.” He channels the rhetoric of John F. Kennedy by exploiting Kennedy’s famous expression in which he balanced two or more clauses against each other by reversing their structures—a rhetorical trope known as chiasmus. Dimon writes ‘Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.’
Dimon is unrelenting in the back-end framing of his critique. Whether or not this is effective probably depends on whether one is an American patriot and is keenly disposed to such rhetoric. He calls for America to roll up its sleeves, and strengthen its role in the world, and to preserve “the freedoms ascribed by our Founding Fathers” (p. 19). Dimon sees an inseparable link between “happiness, our freedoms, and free enterprise” (p. 19). He ends by casting himself as a true patriot, declaring his ‘deep and abiding faith in the United States of America and its extraordinary resiliency and capabilities’ (p. 19).
Dimon’s language invokes sentiment to disguise intent, yet elsewhere his letter features socially acceptable ‘authentic-talk’. So, we have some good things and some not-so-good things. However, unlike the language of most people, the important difference is that the CEOs of major companies are persons in power. They exercise material influence over those they lead and at times have a profoundly broader political influence. The overriding impression is that Dimon’s recipe for rallying his stakeholders in the midst of a pandemic is to confer agency (blame) on the disease, cite the need for progressive solutions and add a heavy dose of American patriotism.
In a crisis, CEOs should be calm and selfless and avoid intemperate language. Such advice seems to have been lost on Elon Musk. In a series of tweets in March and April 2020, and in the company’s first quarter 2020 earnings call on April 29, 2020, Musk used extreme and offensive language to express his strong disdain for government stay-at-home orders. He delivered a rant, presumably because he was frustrated at being prevented from resuming production at his Northern California manufacturing plant. He set an egregious example for the broader community by claiming these state health orders were “fascist” and tantamount to “forcible imprisonment.” He called for people to be given back “their Goddamn freedom” and completed his tirade with the offensive expression “What the [expletive]!” Such language is grossly insensitive in the stressful environment of a pandemic when workers and community members have good reason to be especially worried about their lives and those of their loved ones.
CEO-speak is never innocent. We need to be alert to the motives that often drive it. Some CEOs have taken the opportunity to use the pandemic setting to impress audiences and to serve their personal rhetorical and strategic agendas.
The best overall communications policy for senior executives in a pandemic is to acknowledge bad news plainly, humbly and calmly. They should present a narrative that includes some aspects of a strategy to survive such an existential crisis.
As a community we need to be ever more conscious that CEO-speak is not merely words that evaporate into thin air. We should monitor CEO-speak and people accountable for it — and not only during a pandemic.
Russell Craig is a Professor of Accounting at the Durham University Business School in Durham, UK. His research analyzes the narrative accountability statements of CEOs. He is a recipient of the Australian National University’s Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. Joel Amernic is a Professor of Accounting at the Rotman School of Management. He is a past editor of Canadian Accounting Perspectives and a recipient of the Canadian Academic Accounting Association’s Outstanding Educator Award. They are the co-authors of Decoding CEO-Speak (Rotman UTP Publishing, 2021).
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