Welcome to the second of a two-part series in Communicating in a Crisis, with my friend and colleague Grant Heston, the Vice President for Communications and Marketing at Florida Southern College. We are sharing ideas to help you in your leadership during this challenging time.
Carolyn Maue: Grant, tell us a time of when you led through a crisis and how you communicated. What worked? What would you do differently?
Grant Heston: Years ago, the NCAA announced an investigation into the University of Central Florida’s athletics programs. During several months, I developed multiple possible responses and communications, including the dismissal of top athletics leadership.
When the report arrived, it was as bad as we feared. UCF immediately launched its plan and removed athletics leadership, suspended others and reorganized organizational responsibilities and reporting relationships in athletics.
The plan included a detailed timeline, starting at 8 a.m., when affected employees were notified about dismissals and suspensions. The next steps included deactivating email accounts, university credit cards, key access to facilities and securing cars owned by UCF that were used by dismissed employees.
That level of detail allowed us to ensure employees (those leaving and staying) heard the news directly from UCF leadership, rather than through rumors or media. Nothing slipped through the cracks.
When we shared the news with the university community and the public, UCF took full responsibility for what took place and apologized for its actions. Our messaging focused on creating a “Culture of Compliance” in athletics to address what went wrong. We repeatedly used that phrase.
We received national and local kudos for our decisive, well-managed response, which stood in contrast to how other institutions fumbled responding to the NCAA. Our preparation, bold and timely communications also helped UCF quickly hire outstanding new athletics leadership.
We paid close attention to our messages to employees and athletics donors, two key constituencies. But looking back, we could have devoted more time to those groups. This was a tremendous shock to the system, and if doing this again I would build in more outreach and messaging to those groups.
CM: How does a leader be sure that they are reaching different audiences, with different needs, beliefs, etc.?
GH: The best advice is to meet them where they are.
For instance, at Florida Southern College, we know that on social media, Instagram followers are mostly students, Facebook are parents and Twitter is a mix.
That allows you to tailor messages for those specific audiences. We’re past the one-size-fits-all approach.
As a leader, you also need to 1) ensure your communications teams purposefully seek out stories and feedback from diverse groups and 2) recruit and retain diverse communications employees who help you see multiple perspectives and reach different audiences.
CM: This is an incredibly important time to build new ways of assuring that you as a leader are reaching all of your constituents, and meeting their needs. The awareness that has increased as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement gives us all an opportunity to invite different voices to the table to help us do that.
CM: Grant, what is your “Secret Sauce?” What makes your leadership, and your communication, different and special?
GM: Your question assumes that I have “different and special” leadership and communications skills!
CM: Which I know you do!
In a crisis, I seek out the best, most diverse perspectives I can find. Because I’ve been blessed to have caring mentors and super smart, creative colleagues, I’d be foolish not to listen to them closely. I then combine their advice with my own instincts and develop a plan. Then we execute the plan to the best of our ability. I work hard to be a calm, level-headed voice during a crisis. Being angry, anxious and generally difficult doesn’t do anything to help solve the problem. It makes things worse.
Every leader also needs someone to tell it like it is and ask the hard questions. I’ve done that for multiple university and college presidents. “You don’t pay me to tell you it’s sunny outside when it’s pouring rain,” I’ve said many times.
I highly recommend the book The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath. It applies to crisis management, but also how an institutional culture of transparency, empathy and customer service builds trust and brand loyalty. It’s an eye-opening read.
CM: This last question is one that is close to my heart, and a value that you and I share: What is the role of fun, humor or irreverence during a crisis?
GH: Great question! Humor is essential for leaders and their teams in surviving a crisis.
During a stressful time at UCF, we were preparing for a critically important public meeting. We were working late the night before and the team was clearly tired and anxious. At one point, someone said we needed an inspiring speech. Without thinking, I jumped up on a table and gave a dramatic, over-the-top recreation of one of Hollywood’s most unintentionally cheesy movie speeches. It was ridiculous and embarrassing, but it worked to break the tension and get us through the night and next day.
Years later, people still mention it to me as a leadership moment they remember. I’m just thankful there’s no video …
CM: I am sure there are many of us who are grateful there is no video of some of our past experiences! We need to remember to keep turning off the camera! Grant, thanks so much for your words of advice and for sharing your wisdom, insights and tips!
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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