Communicating in a Crisis

Nothing You Ever Do Will Be Scrutinized as Closely as What You Say During a Crisis.

This pandemic has taken us out of our comfort zones. Most impactful decisions are part of a slow-moving process of planning, benchmarking and adjusting. Right now, that is impossible.

Can COVID-19 be stopped, or will it go through the entire population of the planet? And how long will that take? Weeks, months, or years?

Benchmarking a 1918 event that was misjudged and mishandled is little help, and decisions about shutdowns, layoffs and safety measures need to be made on an ongoing basis.

Right Decisions

We cannot guarantee we make the right decisions, but we can manage how we make them and how we communicate them. They should be made with sensitivity to our audiences and communicated in a way that shows they were the result of a careful thought process, using words that reflect the gravity of the crisis.

Crises catch us off guard. We are pressed for time and are likely to think we are less accountable for words spoken under stressful conditions, but the opposite is true. Because we are pressed for time, and because we might feel less accountable, things we say and do are more revealing of our true nature.

Add to this the potentially far reaching impact of crisis decision-making and the ongoing scrutiny that brings, and crisis communication becomes a proving ground for leadership.

Leadership is a fiduciary responsibility to both the institution and its publics. Those in positions of authority need to attune decisions to both the immediate physical and financial impact, and also the social and cultural aftermath.

Every organization has four public groups: customers, employees, shareholders or donors, and the community. The wellbeing of customers, investors and the community is driven by the sense of wellbeing of the employees.

Any decision that disregards this is shortsighted and foolish. Employees are always the most important audience.

If the path you selected represents your best effort at balancing the needs of your organization and its component publics, then you can compose your message with confidence. Confidence is an essential element of leadership. Those dependent on you understand you have the most information: they want to know you weighed all the options and made the best choices.

The Formula

Communicating decisions in a crisis is somewhat formulaic. Our responsibility to one another as human beings outweighs other concerns. Whether making a crisis announcement at a meeting or sending an email, the first step is a heartfelt expression of concern for those affected. Consider the impact on them and acknowledge your awareness of their situation.

Next, the body of your communication should be the outline of your thought process. How does the crisis affect your industry, and what threat does it pose to your organization? How might it impact your four public groups? What conclusions have you drawn? Strategic decision-making necessarily pursues greater objectives and sacrifices lesser objectives. Explain them, and do the addition for your audience.

The root word in leadership is “lead.” Finish by telling your audience where you are taking them. Given the circumstances, what is the best-case scenario, and how will your decisions make that possible?

When making significant announcements, we ask for questions and feedback. However, when a complex message has been communicated in a time-shortened crisis situation, it is best to give an audience time to consider what was said.

If employees have been assembled in a meeting room or online, finish by saying you are taking a 10-minute break before answering questions. When the question and answer session starts, call first on people who seem less emotional to set a professional, stable atmosphere.

Once the primary crisis message has been delivered, an ongoing dialogue begins. This might include weekly updates, a question and answer webpage or a communication committee made up of employees at all levels acting as message disseminators. When the crisis has passed, or at key points along the way, it may be necessary to deliver formal addresses that follow the pattern of the main announcement.

In the long run, we know crises will happen. The only variable we control is how we deal with them.

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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