So we are all in the midst of an unprecedented crisis and for many, one that we have not seen before nor will see again in our life time. It is certain that we all have our eyes on the leaders around us to listen to what they believe is happening and will happen. We are also interested in how they plan to tackle the crisis and get us back to normality as soon as possible. So much has been delayed or put on hold but it is only because we are waiting for leaders to make decisions.
As a leader, you are used to having the eyes of your team on you. They watch your every move and listen to your every word. At this time, your communication has never been more critical. We are all waiting for your commentary, plans and decisions in order to make decisions about our own personal situations. Positive reassurance may not be possible and, if not, then we would just like to know the truth so we can assess the impact and make appropriate decisions.
According to an article I recently read in Harvard Business Review, there are 5 key steps you should take in your communication strategy.
Step 1 - Create a team for centralised communication
In any crisis, best practice is to form a team to focus on gathering critical information, assess it, make decisions on it and then communicate to your stakeholders. This focused team ensures that information is not being assessed in small pockets throughout your organisation leading to different decision making and, in truth, a total shambles being the result!
Step 2 - Communicate with your employees
Employees are your most important stakeholders and function as ambassadors to your community. If they aren’t informed and don’t understand what is going on, communications outside of the organisation will be more difficult. The company needs to demystify the situation for employees, put everyone’s mind at ease, and provide hope for the future. Employees will look to hear or see the leader's voice. Regular communication using all the technology and social channels available to us is essential.
Step 3 - Communicate regularly with customers
Be authentic and empathetic with customers. They need to know the impact you expect on your business, your plans and what they can expect from you. Hiding from them is to be avoided at all costs. How you respond and communicate with them will either strengthen or weaken your relationship.
Step 4 - Reassure shareholders
Again, be authentic and transparent. Shareholders will be interested in the effect on your business today but also what they can expect to happen to your performance going forward. They will be looking to gain some confidence from the communications you make.
Step 5 - Be proactive with communities
There is probably a lot of good you can provide to your communities during this horrific crisis. It isn't all about profit and investing in them to see them through to the other side will be invaluable.
In fast-moving and uncertain situations, many leaders face questions they may not even have answers to. As someone who studies crisis communication, I regularly tell my students and clients that you need to communicate early and often with your key constituencies throughout a crisis. Even if you’re still trying to understand the extent of the problem, be honest and open to maintain credibility. Approach the situation with empathy. Put yourself in your constituents’ shoes to understand their anxiety. You will sometimes get it right, and you will often get it wrong, but it is still better to be as transparent as you can.