This is a time when leadership is being tested. This is also a time when effective communication can make or break a leader. In moments of crisis, strong leaders who have the ability to effectively communicate rise to the occasion. They use words as a calming salve to reduce anxiety and heal wounds. They provide credible information, realistic responses, and a course of action. They offer a clear and inspired vision for a future beyond the crisis. They can also demonstrate compassion and empathy by exposing their humanity.
In my career I have had the opportunity to help organizations and leaders navigate the dark waters of many a crisis, and emerge on the other side battle-tested, sometimes bruised, but hopefully better prepared to meet the future. Those crises have ranged from a data breach, to a bank failure, to a wrongful death. Each has its own nuance, its own facts and its own challenges, but there are some consistent principles that apply across the board.
First, it’s important to understand that there are three kinds of crises:
1. A manmade disaster such as an accident, criminal activity, or negligence.
2. A natural disaster such as a hurricane, earthquake, or wildfire.
3. A failure to appropriately respond to either of the first two.
COVID-19 is a toxic combination of all three: a natural disaster exacerbated by a failure of preparation coupled with an unwieldy global population resistant or unable to taking the actions required to help stop the spread of the pandemic. As we navigate these new waters, leaders should consider their own communication as important factors in how they manage, survive, and ultimately thrive once we come out on the other side.
Here are eight principles leaders to help leaders communicate in times of crisis:
1. Put health and safety first.
The decisions you make as a leader should be guided by the question: “What is the right thing to do?” If there is any chance your actions could further endanger public health and safety, you must make the call—no matter how difficult the consequences—that will protect people from danger. Those early decisions will define your legacy and they will determine how and whether you survive the crisis.
2. Identify stakeholders and respond to their perceptions and expectations.
With whom do you need to communicate? One of the most important audiences for executives to consider is their internal audience. There’s typically a mad scramble to issue a statement or send out a press release in the event of a crisis. The natural instinct is to make sure the public—customers, vendors, investors, and creditors—know you are reacting. But, one of the most vital, often overlooked, and frequently undervalued audiences with whom to communicate is your internal audience.
Your team can become important brand ambassadors for you during a crisis—if they are properly informed about the situation, understand the company’s response, and are equipped with key information that they can readily share.
As you identify other key stakeholder groups, it is important to view the crisis through their eyes: What do they need to hear from you? What will their concerns be? Ensure that your crisis response team is diverse and includes people from all levels of the organization to help give you insights into how all parts of your organization may be impacted by the crisis, and thus better prepare you to respond to them.
3. Provide people with facts and action.
My former boss, Ambassador Karen Hughes, who served as counselor to President George W. Bush, often says that in a crisis people want two things: facts and action. She would know a thing or two about communicating in a crisis—she addressed the nation on 9/11 to let the American people know how government agencies were responding during that darkest of days.
That same maxim holds true today. Executives can be a calm source of information during a crisis. You can provide key stakeholders with facts about the situation and how it will impact the organization. And you can provide action—what you are doing to respond, and what others can do to help. It is natural for people to want to help; link your communication to action to show that you are not just aware of the crisis, but that you are also working to get on top of it and finding ways to involve people in the solution.
4. Communicate early and often.
There is a rightful tendency to “wait and see” until all of the facts are gathered. But nature abhors a vacuum. In a news cycle measured in seconds and minutes, not hours, it is important to get points on the board first and let people know you are in command. You may have little information to share—that is okay. Communicate quickly to let people know that you are aware of the situation and to establish yourself as a credible authority. Create a consistent channel for public information and stick to it. Let people know where and how you will provide updates and then do so regularly. Early on, you have the opportunity to frame the situation on your own terms. The longer you wait, the window to do so becomes smaller and smaller.
Social media provides a wonderful tool for rapid response, and a consistent place to share information where people are already engaging during a crisis. Make sure you are leveraging those tools effectively. Either ensure that every statement made by the organization is rapidly disseminated on all of your channels, or that you post a notice on unused channels about where the public can find up-to-date information. Social channels also provide a vital tool for listening, understanding, and reacting to public response.
5. Use facts and data—but don’t forget emotion.
In times of uncertainty it is important to be vulnerable and let people see your humanity. Yes, you are in charge, you have a plan, and you are executing against it. But you may also be nervous. You may experience anxiety just like the rest of us. Let people know that. Be a consistent, steady source of facts and information, but always put people first. The first line in every statement should acknowledge our shared humanity.
6. Be honest and transparent.
It should go without saying that honesty is the best policy. But, it is an important reminder that a time of crisis is not the time to shield the truth, or withhold information. It will all one day become public—remember that. In dark moments, when things are uncertain and the future looks bleak, remember there will come a time when the light of day will shine on how people and organizations comported themselves during the crisis. Share appropriate information as expediently as possible and err on the side of transparency.
7. Be prepared.
The best way to emerge from a crisis stronger than when you entered is to be prepared. Many an organization has been caught flatfooted, unprepared for a crisis of any magnitude, let alone the one we face. However, it is never too late to begin. A few quick steps to take:
- Compile a cross-functional crisis response team.
- Identify and train spokespersons.
- Have rapid notification system in place.
- Identify and have call lists of key stakeholder contacts.
- Prepare template communication materials.
- Establish monitoring systems.
8. Be visionary.
As you walk through a crisis, focus your responses not only on the current state of affairs, but also on where it is going and how you will lead people to the future. However, beware the false dawn of premature recovery. The last thing you want to do is lull people into a false sense of complacency. You aren’t being asked to promise a full recovery and a perfect resolution to the crisis at hand. But you can hope for better days. Set that tone early on—be visionary.