“Losing your head in a crisis is a good way to become the crisis.”
These are confusing times, especially for the A/E world, whose fortunes are inextricably tied to the economy. And they are made more confusing by the kaleidoscope of information that’s exploding across our computers and phones and watches and smart speakers and, well, you get the idea. Mixed messages from our elected officials hasn’t helped, of course, and a non-stop news cycle cranks up the stress level to an untenable pitch. The last thing we all need is more confusion popping up in our inboxes.
Because we’re all in this together, and every company will eventually face something that clients and customers need to know (global pandemics notwithstanding), here are eight pointers for communicating in a time of crisis:
- Have a plan but expect to improvise
Yes, have a clear strategy for communicating what you want to say and when you want to say it but be prepared to improvise. Recognizing that you are facing a crisis is the first thing a leader must do, but put yourself in a mindset that avoids over-reaction and embraces agility.
The traditional tendency is that this should be a top-down response (“Attention: The CEO will speak at 3 PM…”), and that is certainly important, but the key is to define a series of priorities for the response and empower key people to discover and implement solutions that respond to those priorities. Establish a framework for making decisions so that accountability is clear and decisions are made by the appropriate people quickly, efficiently and with as little angst as possible.
Your response team—more a network than anything—will be essential to the strength and speed of your communications.
2. Many mouths, one voice
Empower the right people to make crisis-response decisions across your company. While this may be logistically challenging, they must work within the framework you established (see above)—if they can’t, for whatever reason, find another candidate. Identifying the right spokesperson is easy if you’re a 12-person practice. If you’re a 2,000-person, multi-office, multi-lingual organization, you have some work to do.
Also, even your best players will fumble the ball every now and then, so be prepared to learn quickly and make corrections without overreacting (e.g., throwing someone under the bus) or paralyzing the organization. One small sliver of sunshine on these cloudy days? Expect new leaders to emerge in these situations. And those leaders won’t always be senior executives.
3. Talk to your staff before you talk to your clients.
You will probably want to get out in front of the crisis with clients, and that’s admirable, but you have to remember the people who depend on your company for their livelihoods. This is the type of event that plunges many workers into a swirling Vortex of Anxiety, wondering if their jobs are secure. Rumors fling around the office. And, in the absence of clear direction, people start to invent things. Don’t let that happen. Get ahead of the rumor mill with the truth. Be clear and factual about your plans and what those mean for everyone in the company.
Don’t get sucked into ultra-creative or over-wrought messaging when time is of the essence—your employees want to know if their jobs are safe, if they will continue getting a paycheck and benefits, and when they can expect things to get back to normal. It can be that basic.
4. Talk to your clients. Now.
Clients hate surprises. Or being the last to find out news that impacts them. So be open and honest with them about how you’re dealing with the crisis. Resist the urge to over-promise or dismiss the severity of the situation; over-confident statements will almost certainly come back to haunt you.
These days, most clients don’t care where or how you do the work as long as you get it done to a level of quality and within a time frame that they expect. So, if your firm is a practice model of today’s mobile workforce, you may have a guarded business-as-usual tenor. If this is all new to you, explain your plan for dealing with it along with potential consequences (budget, schedule, etc.) and remedies.
(And if you don’t have a telework policy or technology in place, check out these fast-tracking tips).
5. Get in. Get out. Don’t linger.
This is not the time for over-written emails or vague statements about the future. Keep the communication simple, clear and declarative. Be positive but, above all else, be honest.
Unbound optimism and arrogance erode credibility. If the waters ahead are rough, acknowledge that and explain how you plan to navigate the rapids.
6. Yup, it’s an AMA world.
We are slouching toward a point of total transparency and immediacy in communication, so expect the unexpected when it comes to questions or issues raised. Things will move fast. If it can be asked, it will be asked. If you don’t know the answer, say you don’t know the answer, but you’ll find out immediately.
As Amy Edmondson recently wrote, “Transparency is ‘job one’ for leaders in a crisis. Be clear what you know, what you don’t know, and what you are doing to learn more.” (Amy C. Edmondson, “Don’t hide bad news in times of crisis,” Harvard Business Review, March 6, 2020, hbr.org.)
Similarly, consider your audience a multi-channel consumer of information. Be prepared to distribute your message across traditional lines (office meetings, email) as well as digital and social channels.
So much of good communication is about listening. Create a culture (or, at least, a forum) that allows people to express their concerns. Accept and respond to those concerns seriously. In fact, do not shy away from empathy, which is often in short supply in a corporate context. A crisis is typically the most important time for leaders to uphold a vital aspect of their role: making a positive difference in people’s lives.
8. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Do not fear consistency or repetition, even if it bores you. It is hard to over-communicate in situations such as this and so be prepared to repeat your message whenever, wherever and however necessary, especially to your own staff.
Finally, communications shouldn’t stop once the crisis has passed. Don’t be afraid of acknowledging your mistakes, especially if someone came up with an inspired correction, but most of all show (and record) what you learned. Walking away a better leader, and a better, healthier company, is the best way to inspire your colleagues and your clients.