Effectively Communicating in Uncertain Times
Heather Matthews • March 17, 2020
Silence fuels fear in a crisis, especially when the crisis is changing by the day and is something few people have experienced before. Over the last ten days, we’ve seen a wide spectrum of communication tactics unfold with the spread of COVID-19, and some of those tactics have been truly horrible. But the organizations that are communicating well are navigating these uncharted waters with reassuring confidence. What are they doing?
- Getting organized – quickly.
I watched one of our clients call together the organization’s Critical Response Team (“CRT”) long before the COVID-19 situation was urgent. The CRT is a team outlined in the organization’s crisis communications plan, which team members adopted last year. In response to the threat of COVID-19, the CRT met after work one night in early March and mapped out different phases of where this situation might go. They talked through how different groups of stakeholders may be affected and what would be the best way to communicate with each group. When the spread of COVID-19 began to rapidly increase, this team calmly deployed each phase of messaging – without internal panic or confusion.
- Planning for worst-case scenarios.
Prepare for landfall in your back yard. Team members who routinely manage the direct effects of hurricanes have deployed similar tactics with COVID-19. They haven’t shied away from the fact that their community could be ground zero, and they’ve written messaging to plan for a worst-case scenario. It takes a strong leader to look ahead and acknowledge the situation could get must worse, but when you are prepared for a disaster, you are able to begin caring for your organization immediately.
- Communicating openly – but calmly – with stakeholders.
Scrubbing your communications for words that unintentionally induce panic ensures you are calmly and effectively sharing information. This can be hard to do in a rush, but it will save you a lot of time trying to reassure scared readers that you really do have the situation under control. We’ve seen successful teams candidly acknowledging the impending possibilities with COVID-19. The same logic of preparing your team to communicate in a crisis applies to preparing your stakeholders to weather the crisis: tell them the truth and what they should do/prepare for, but don’t unintentionally inflate the risk.
- Speaking up for the unpopular option.
A group may drift toward the easy option when it comes to communicating, but a focused professional will have the courage to speak up for a different, harder option if it is the right course of action. Consider the CEO who wants a COVID-19 message to go out to employees by noon, but at 11:45 AM the communications professional determines the wording isn’t accurate because the facts have changed. In times of crisis, an effective communicator must both stay abreast of the latest news, and in this example, have the courage to recommend missing the noon deadline in order to deliver accurate information to the company’s employees.
- Looking inward to prepare for the long haul.
While COVID-19 feels like it sprang upon us overnight, the effects will be long-lasting. Your crisis team will likely need to be operating at 150% for the next several months, so consider now how you staff the big projects, how you provide outlets to share personal concerns, and how you ensure everyone gets a break when possible. Together you can navigate in this evolving situation, but it will take ensuring you care for your co-workers.
While there has already been much communication about COVID-19, it seems that we may still have quite a road ahead of us. It’s not too late to put a solid communications plan in place for the coming weeks. Meanwhile, I hope you and your family stay healthy and safe. If you are struggling, please let someone know. May we all band together, do our part and support the suffering with courage and words of peace.
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