In crisis, take the higher path
“In every crisis, doubt or confusion, take the higher path – the path of compassion, courage, understanding and love.” Amit Ray
Constance (Connie) S. Ward, Founder and CEO of Thought Leader Zone, has international communications experience working for large and small multinational companies that include Black & Veatch, GE Insurance Solutions, and Zurich Financial Services. Her latest role was head of external communications at Lonza Ltd. She also has experience in strategic marketing as global head of competitive intelligence for Roche Pharmaceuticals in Switzerland. A former journalist, she has written for Time magazine, The Times and the Sunday Times of London among other publications.
Communication has been essential throughout 2020 due to the global health crises. To what extent should business leaders, as EMBA participants are or aspire to be, master internal and external communication skills?
As an EMBA graduate, you should have a high CIQ (communication IQ) to make yourself a more valuable leader inside your organisation. Rather than simply outsourcing responsibility for communications to a Corporate Communications team, executives should develop a thorough understanding of the basic tenets of good communications and messaging. They should also be aware of best communications practices that could apply to a range of situations, particularly in a crisis. Raising their personal CIQ will enable them to work more efficiently with the company’s internal and external communications teams.
What are the milestones to developing strong leadership messages?
Leaders at all levels should follow a robust process when crafting and delivering key messages inside and outside the organisation. Here are some simple steps.
Start by categorising the specific audience(s) for your message: Who are the key stakeholders? Why should your audience care about this message? Then identify what links this message to your business situation: Is it proactive or reactive? Is it about a new perspective or priority? How is it supporting or contradicting other messages being communicated? Next, decide the best approach to make your audience understand the impact of the information on their success in the organisation. When crafting the message, align it with your goals and your stakeholders’ needs. If you don’t have all the facts at hand, explain that you will disclose further information when available.
It is important to determine the best timing for releasing your message: Monday mornings and Friday afternoons are not ideal. Providing a feedback loop is essential, as two-way communication is more effective than just publishing “edicts from above”. It also helps ensure a shared understanding of the message content.
Make sure that you are “walking the talk” as a leader and setting an example for your audience that aligns with the message you’ve distributed. Assess the immediate impact of your message: If it isn’t as successful as you wanted, either re-issue the same message or alter the wording to make it more effective. Remember that you can’t overcommunicate one message, but you can communicate too many messages. Just make sure the message is the same even if you change how it’s articulated.
What is your advice for crisis communications?
In addition to being a strong business partner with your Corporate Communications team on an ongoing basis, you need to be ready to communicate effectively in the event of a crisis. Make sure you adhere to the most important general considerations for leaders communicating during a crisis or an incident.
Coordinate any communications with your Corporate Communications and Legal teams so that they are aware of all communications you’re preparing before you issue anything. Implement a process to ensure all internal and external feedback (e.g. questions from your team members, clients, and journalists) will be fed into the leadership team/incident management team/crisis communications team.
Be proactive and carry out an immediate impact assessment to evaluate communications requirements specific to your team. Recognise that the key challenge is acting, even in the face of a lack of information or substantive content. Avoid misinformation and ensure you have communicated only confirmed facts. Be prepared to handle the volume of information and a variety of sources, which can be overwhelming.
Be timely in your communications to demonstrate that the leadership is prepared and managing the situation. Send the first communication as soon as possible to acknowledge the existence of the problem and then send regular communication updates to advise on the status of the issue and the expected timescale for the next update.
Build trust and confidence with your consistency of messaging to all stakeholders. Reinforce your organisation’s reputation by ensuring that any statement issued in response to media or public inquiries is drawn from your company’s values. Corporate values provide a fundamental linkage to behaviours occurring in a crisis and behaviours exhibited in the normal course of business. The values of the company are a solid foundation to build messaging that not only responds to the crisis situation, but also supports the company’s branding.
From your experience, what are the dos and don’ts of crisis communications?
When an incident or crisis disrupts your company’s operations, it’s important for leaders to follow these specific guidelines closely to ensure that details aren’t overlooked in the heat of the moment.
Don’t downplay the problem or demonstrate a lack of empathy. Do address concerns and reassure staff that the situation is in hand. Communicate calmly and personally, acknowledging the emotions of the situation. Demonstrate empathy for those most affected by the incident. Don’t refuse to communicate or deny an incident has occurred. But don’t admit guilt or liability, make allegations, speculate or embellish, or shift blame. Do respond openly, honestly and credibly. Dispel rumours and misinformation by presenting the facts and highlighting any information that isn’t yet available.
Don’t act too hastily. Always think before you speak or write. Do inform quickly, competently, simply, and clearly. Keep your core messages to a manageable number, usually three.
Don’t use euphemisms or technical/business jargon that may either confuse or dilute the circumstances. Do state only the facts and in an objective manner.
Don’t ignore established routines under time pressure or allow external factors to exercise undue influence over your response. Do clarify and adhere to proper routines, interim processes and procedures, e.g. using media-trained spokespersons.
Don’t become complacent after the first round of communication. Do update information continuously throughout the crisis situation by indicating what is being done and an expected timeframe for resolution.
Don’t forget to provide promised updates on the situation. Do state, if possible, when you will be able to provide further information about the next stages and action to be taken.
Don’t hope the incident goes away. Do prepare for the worst.
Don’t inform media about incidents involving staff unless relevant family members/internal audiences have already been informed. Do provide your team with the same consistent messages you give to external audiences and vice versa.
Don’t ignore the importance of demonstrating your leadership in such situations. Do ask your team for their trust and support for the leadership/incident recovery/crisis communications teams.