written by Matt Andrews
The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).
It is good to remember that every crisis poses different communication challenges, so I don’t think there are one-best-way solutions to doing communication right in the face of crisis. But I do think there are some good communication ideas you might consider whenever you are engaging with others during this difficult time.
How do you communicate to your people when the wind and waves are high?
Let me offer some ideas that I personally think can be useful. Before doing so, however, let me encourage you to open yourself to learning about communications in crisis. There are a number of articles out there offering advice on communicating in crisis, like this one and this one and this one. I advise you to read as many articles as possible and weigh up all the different points of view out there, to see where the ‘good ideas’ are (those that seem to be offered by multiple authors, with examples, and that you think you could act on in your context). Additionally, and particularly regarding the COVID-19 crisis, you may want to reference the excellent resource on communicating during health crises (by the United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration).
My first good communication idea is ‘Be calm’. Your main job in crisis is to lead your people through a stressful time; they will only follow if they think you are credible and know what you are doing. The best way to foster this credibility is to stay calm and collected. I have encountered much advice on how to be calm in communication, and here are a few—briefly: (i) be as prepared as you can and keep things simple—make sure you have a basic narrative that you will stick to (it is your anchor); (ii) be calm in your demeanor, sure of what you are communicating (adopt a simple standing or seated pose, for instance, and do not try to be charismatic here!); (iii) do not be threatened by any questions or challenges, but rather listen and take notes (you will get many chances to communicate and can easily get back to people if you don’t have answers now); (iv) tell the truth; anything else will generate stress (now or later, for you and the people you are communicating with).
My second good communication idea is ‘Be honest and consistent’. You want to build your community confidence, trust and courage through communication. You will undermine this objective if you are dishonest. This is the gist of an important article on ‘What Jaws Can Teach You About Ethical Leadership’ by author Jeremy Weinstein. The article comes with recommended tweets about the centrality of honesty and consistency in comms, which we should always remember.
My third good communication idea is ‘Be professional and personal’. As a public official you may see your primary communications role as imparting technical information related to the crisis. This is certainly key and, as Katharina Balazs emphasizes, you must be the professional providing as much contextual information as possible. You should be looking to use this information to get your people thinking clearly about the crisis (being ‘smarter than their brains’) and understanding what their role is in any response. But you don’t achieve these objectives by just being a good professional. Be personal as well; show empathy, bring your own humanity out for all to see and encourage those you communicate with to be humans too. This will help you to achieve a key goal of crisis communication; bringing people together as people, in the same boat, needing to work as one and not separately.
My fourth good communication idea is ‘Be present and tangible’. Your people will be looking for regular touch points with you, so develop a regular schedule of communication and stick to it. This is also emphasized by Katharina Balazs and may seem simple but is vital.
My fifth (and, for now, last) communication idea is ‘Use promotional language’. You need to mobilize your people with positive, promotional, language, even while being honest about the challenges and losses likely to come through crisis. Daan Stam, from the Rotterdam School of Management, researched communications in times of economic crisis. He found that more effective crisis management communicators focused on ‘promotion words’ (like ‘confident’ or ‘eagerness’ or ‘ideals) that helped people think past their anxiety. They did not focus on ‘prevention words’, like ‘safety’ and ‘anxiety’, that Stam says amplifies anxiety. “We suggest that leaders stay calm and use promotion oriented communication to communicate a goal that is faraway and positive and bright…this is most motivational for followers.”
Note, they are not saying you should over promote and make false promises or downplay hard truths. Remember you need to be honest, and in crises that means telling people things facts they may not want to hear (and that are inherently frightening). What Stam is saying is that you need to use words that balance these facts with positive words and statements to motivate and mobilize.
So, my five ‘good communication’ ideas for communicating through crises are:
- Be calm
- Be honest and consistent
- Be professional and personal
- Be present and tangible
- Use promotional language
Let me offer two examples where I think these five ideas come to life.
First, consider Ohio’s Health Director, Dr Amy Acton, addressing the media about policy decisions in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Note her calm, static position, and her tone and body language. Note also how honest and consistent she is in her messaging. And note how professional she is, but also how she shows empathy and a personal connection. Note how honest but promotional she is, using word like “preparing”, “hope”. You can see other videos of her speeches to see how present and tangible she is, here, for instance.
Second, consider Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong communicating at the start of the COVID-19 crisis.
Note his calm, static position, and his reassuring tone. Note the way he provides information about how the country has prepared (this is very ‘promotional’, especially when he says ‘we got through SARS (a past crisis) and we can pull through this too’). But see how he addresses any availability bias for his people, in telling them that this is different to SARS. Note how he models behavior (being both professional and personal) in explaining that he has canceled events. In what I think is a key part of the speech, he reflects on some of the adaptations that may be needed (from about 5:09 into the address) because of things that are still not known, but does so positively, noting that the goal is to ‘think ahead and anticipate the net few steps…so that we are mentally prepared for what may come’. He is also promotional in saying “I am confident” and refers to examples of front line workers to motivate people, concluding that “This is what it means to be Singaporean. This is who we are.” As with Dr. Acton, the Prime Minister and his staff have communicated regularly, and in very consistent ways, like this.
Now that we have covered this material (in an overly long post, I know), consider these questions:
- Do you agree that it is vital to be calm when communicating in crisis?
- What makes it difficult to keep calm in these situations?
- What strategies/habits can you adopt to help you stay calm while communicating?
- Do you agree that it is vital to be honest and consistent when communicating in crisis?
- What makes it difficult to be honest and consistent in these situations?
- What strategies/habits can you adopt to be honest and consistent while communicating?
- Do you agree that it is vital to be professional and personal when communicating in crisis?
- What makes it difficult to be professional and personal in these situations?
- What strategies/habits can you adopt to be professional and personal while communicating?
- Do you agree that it is vital to be present and tangible when communicating in crisis?
- What makes it difficult to be present and tangible in these situations?
- What strategies/habits can you adopt to be present and tangible while communicating?
- Do you agree that it is vital to use promotional language when communicating in crisis?
- What makes it difficult to use promotional language in these situations?
- What strategies/habits can you adopt to use promotional language while communicating?
- How do you ensure not to over promote?