Crisis Communication Fundamentals

Article #10 in a series exploring the business world’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. This series was inspired by the America Reopens Handbook, which was created by the BizBreakthru team and is available to members

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We want to end our series on responding to COVID-19 with some crisis communications fundamentals, as well as with two rules for leaders during a crisis.

There are 10 basic, fundamental rules that all crisis communicators should follow in this coronavirus-filled postmodern corporate environment:

  1. Communicate “do’s”, not “do not’s”. Framing is everything. Phrasing is framing. Just because you are phrasing your message positively doesn’t mean you’re denying the potential negative impact of action or inaction. Positive phrasing is critical for breaking through noise and creating action, especially when you are truly in the thick of things.
  2. Repeat, repeat, repeat! Remember the “rule of threes” in a crisis: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. Repetition is key to retention.
  3. Focus on the facts. Yes, we live in a post-factual world today. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore them, as they play a powerful role in shaping thoughts and — more importantly — rationalizing beliefs. Pull them out and drill them in.
  4. Be honest and transparent. Are you afraid? Are you uncertain? Demonstrate your humanity — and the shared humanity of your organization — by sharing your weaknesses. Embrace the “first person” narrative, use the active voice whenever possible, and own up to your shortcomings. Just follow them up with facts, then with your convictions and resolutions.
  5. Ask for input, then listen and act on good suggestions. You cannot pretend to have all the answers. Nobody does. But collectively — both inside and outside your organization’s walls — you can find many of them. But you have to listen. And if you hope to build any trust with your communities, you have to act on what you hear.
  6. Demonstrate vulnerability and empathy. This is actually important enough to be one of the two basic rules for leadership during a crisis that we’ll dive into next.
  7. Remember that actions speak louder than words, so “walk the talk.” Communicators are traditionally very good at rhetoric — at finding the right words and “talking the talk.” But especially during a crisis — any crisis — words are not enough. They must be backed by action.
  8. Celebrate the positives, but don’t sugar coat the negatives. This goes closely with #1 and #4 above, but deserves its own number. It’s very tempting to gloss over negative news — to “spin” it as is often said. Words cannot fix a crisis, however. Only action can. The best way to address negative news is to describe what actions are being taken to minimize the chances of it happening again.
  9. Channel the nervous energy by providing ways to make a real difference. Many people experience feelings of hopelessness in a crisis. As a leader, you may be able to help replace just a small amount of despair with purpose.
  10. Communicate your vision, but be open to changing it. We discussed the importance of vision in an earlier article — it doesn’t just serve an emotional role, but an operational one as well. As we mentioned, that vision must extend beyond mere fiscal success. But perhaps more importantly, the vision has to be a shared one, and as a leader, you must be willing to adjust your vision based on changing circumstances.

We will end this article, and our series, with two important pieces of advice from a McKinsey special report on COVID-19 planning.

Rule #1 of Crisis Response: Demonstrate Empathy
Leaders should constantly strive to make a positive difference in people’s lives, McKinsey advises. Personal health and income are not niceties, they are necessities. The COVID-19 crisis has weakened both of these. Without our fundamental security needs being met, it’s extremely difficult for employees to focus on work. Communicating with employees about important issues is not something that should be delegated. It is the responsibility of the leader.

Communicating effectively involves demonstrating both empathy and vulnerability. A good leader acknowledges “the personal and professional challenges that employees and their loved ones experience during a crisis” while remaining “attentive to their own well-being.”

“Since each crisis will affect people in particular ways, leaders should pay careful attention to how people are struggling and take corresponding measures to support them.”

“As stress, fatigue, and uncertainty build up during a crisis, leaders might find that their abilities to process information, to remain levelheaded, and to exercise good judgment diminish. They will stand a better chance of countering functional declines if they encourage colleagues to express concern—and heed the warnings they are given. Investing time in their well-being will enable leaders to sustain their effectiveness over the weeks and months that a crisis can entail.”

Rule #2: Communicate Clearly, Simply, Honestly & Frequently
McKinsey warns that “[high] levels of uncertainty, perceived threats, and fear can even lead to ‘cognitive freezing.’ Put simply: the more complicated, abstract, or extraneous information is right now, the more difficult it will be for people to process it.”

The best way to break through the elevated filters we deploy during a crisis is to have the message come from a trusted source. And during a crisis, employees trust the information from their employers above all other sources according to Edelman as cited in the article. McKinsey’s advice:

“To convey crucial information to employees, keep messages simple, to the point, and actionable. Walmart published its 6-20-100 guidance: stand six feet away to maintain a safe physical distance, take 20 seconds for good hand washing, consider a body temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit the signal to stay home from public activity. Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield focused on personal care in reassuring employees stressed over work. ‘We got this,’ he said. ‘Take care of yourselves, take care of your families, be a good partner.’”

We hope you have found this series helpful as you tackle this crisis.

How can we help you overcome your COVID-19 challenges? Let us know in the comments below!

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