Leadership Tips for Communicating in a Crisis: Part I

From Carolyn: I asked my friend and colleague Grant Heston for his best advice about how leaders can communicate effectively in a crisis. Grant is  the  Vice President for Communications and Marketing at Florida Southern College, the oldest private college in Florida and ranked by U.S. News as a “Top 10 Regional University in the South.” Grant and I got to know each other at University of Central Florida, where he spent 12.5 years, including roles as VP for Communications & Marketing and Chief of Staff. Here are his great suggestions!

Carolyn Maue: We are in the middle of a huge national crisis. What do people want to hear in a crisis? What impact does that have on how the leader communicates, i.e., frequency, repeating messages, etc.?

 Grant Heston: In a crisis, I often refer to a quote from the poet William Stafford: “The signals we give should be clear … [for] the darkness around us is deep.”

Emotions run high in a crisis, rumors are everywhere and people are fearful (of layoffs, reorganizations, leadership changes, business disruptions). We’re seeing it right now across industries due to the pandemic. Anxiety is at all-time highs.

Much of that anxiety is fueled by fear of the unknown — of being in the dark. People want to know what’s happening, what’s the plan and how it will impact their lives.

To the greatest extent possible, leaders should give people what they want: information and reassurance. By communicating clearly and often, leaders light the darkness for their key audiences.

CM: I am so glad  you said that about reassurance. I often tell leaders that it is an under-used tool. Studies tell us that people who are in crisis need to hear a message multiple times before it sinks in, and reassurance sort of “greases the skids.”

CM: In terms of communications, what should leaders focus on during a crisis?

GH: A few obvious tenets of good crisis communications: tell the truth. Don’t lie about or “spin” a bad situation. Apologize unreservedly for mistakes. Those should be givens.

Perhaps less obvious during a crisis is that leaders must prioritize building trust in the institution from key stakeholders. Trust is the foundation upon which a business is built; therefore, communications must focus on building and preserving trust.

Trust is built in two ways: transparency and empathy. In terms of transparency, the best communications address as many questions as possible about what’s happened and what’s next.

For instance, with so many businesses conducting COVID-19 layoffs and furloughs, transparency means answering key questions such as:

·         How many employees were let go?

·         How will furloughs work?

·         What’s happening with pay cuts?

·         How does this affect long-term goals?

·         How will this affect customers?

·         Will my job change? If so, how?

·         What are you doing for ex-employees?

·         Is senior leadership sharing the pain?

·         How were decisions made?

·         Are more layoffs, cuts coming?

An excellent recent example of COVID-19 crisis communications comes from Airbnb: in his transparent, detailed and heartfelt company-wide letter, Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky wrote: “To those leaving Airbnb, I am truly sorry. Please know this is not your fault. The world will never stop seeking the qualities and talents that you brought to Airbnb…that helped make Airbnb. I want to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for sharing them with us.”

CM: What messages need to be stressed in a crisis? What needs to not be emphasized?

GH:  Every crisis is different, but leaders should remember five principles:

  • Be engaged. Tell your story … don’t let your competition, opponents or media tell it for you. “No comment” and silence rarely worked well in the past … it doesn’t work at all in today’s culture.
  • Be timely. Leaders used to have days to respond to an issue or crisis. Now it’s hours.
  • Be bold. In a crisis, you’ll typically work with legal counsel, whose job is to advise caution to avoid potential litigation (understandable, that’s their job). Leaders also must consider the court of public opinion, too. Damage to your reputation can be just as problematic as a lawsuit.
  • Be caring. Compassion. Kindness. These are strengths, not weaknesses, and should be a part of every communication when an organization is in the wrong or must make difficult decisions.
  • Be thick-skinned. Don’t respond to every slight, mistake or complaint that comes along. When an organization addresses a nasty tweet from someone with 15 followers, it brings more attention to the tweet than if it had been left alone.

CM: I think it is important for leaders to keep the future in mind during a crisis. How much emphasis should a leader put on the future during a time of crisis?

 GH: By their natures, crises force you to focus on the short term … not just in your communications but in the decision you make. Leaders must address the immediate crisis, but I encourage looking to the future at the same time.

In fact, a short-term crisis can create opportunities for an organization to build trust and grow its reputation.

CM – It is so hard to focus on the future when there are so many urgent needs. But leaders need to cast a vision, to remind that this crisis will pass, and there will be better days ahead. This is not going to last forever. And it is important to remember that there are things you and your team are learning and doing that were created as a result of this crisis which you will be able to carry forward and use in the future.

CM: Grant, thanks so much for these great tips. Part II will be coming soon, when we’ll talk about examples of communication strategies used in a crisis, and how to assure leaders are reaching a diverse audience and inclusive in their messages. Stay tuned!

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