Communicating in a Time of Crisis
During the pandemic, I saw a funny meme that said, “I was wondering how every corporation I’ve ever given my email to felt about the proper steps of washing my hands.” You may have felt that way too. I received emails from every yoga studio I have ever visited, Rover (the dog walking App), Door Dash, my dry cleaner, Lyft and Uber, and more. I am sure you can relate. Interestingly, the regular promotions from Target and Kohls keep coming in, causing me to pause when I got those and wonder why they were sending those to me at that time. Didn’t they know we were in a pandemic? Was that the right time for me to buy a new shirt just because they sent me a coupon?“ I’ll tackle the answer to that question, but first, let’s talk about communication in general. How much and what should we communicate—whether we’re in a pandemic or dealing with another crisis?
My response in most cases is to communicate early and often. So, what does that mean? From a communications standpoint, there are lots of best practices to share. To begin,
If you aren’t yet communicating with your employees, do so immediately. Even if you don’t have all the answers, share what you have figured out. I would suggest communication come from one person, maybe your HR Director, so you don’t have multiple messages going from multiple areas of the company. And, if you haven’t already formed a crisis team, do so immediately.
In a time of crisis, folks need to know that you are working on it. Ask yourself if your clients need to know about any changes. Did you cancel all business travel? Have you asked your engineers to not attend meetings with more than 10 people? What other changes have you made? Are team members working from home?
Please, please don’t go on to describe the obvious. With the pandemic, many chose to instruct their audience in great detail about the virus—things they had heard ad nauseum. Consider a natural disaster like a tornado. Should your messaging include how tornados form, where you should go for shelter, etc.? These are things best left to meteorologists and the American Red Cross. If you include a ton of information about the crisis itself, the important part of your message isn’t going to get read.
If you don’t have all the answers about the upcoming training you are offering, if the project is going to be off schedule because of supply chain issues, etc., simply state just that.
Here are some other tips:
It is human nature when we don’t have the answers to over-explain. Don’t. State what you do know and what you are working on and leave it at that.
Don’t volunteer any information that you could be held to account for later or comment on rumors or speculation. For example, “We think that this crisis is going to impact delivery of materials to jobsites.” If you don’t know it to be fact, don’t mention it. But you can still address it by noting that you are working with all subcontractors and material suppliers to determine any potential schedule impacts.
Don’t simply tell folks what you think they want to hear. It will catch up with you.
Leave politics and personal viewpoints out of your communication.
And, by all means, stress compassion and a commitment to hearing concerns, adapt to the fluid situation and promise to continue to communicate.
Regarding how often you should communicate, the answer is simple… when you have something meaningful to share. Your crisis team may develop a list of the frequently asked questions you are starting to get so you can evaluate what the key themes should be in your communication. I don’t advocate sending an email to your target audiences every time someone has a new question, rather, look for common themes.
So, how do you communicate? I suggest emailing if you have good proper distribution channels in place, as well as posting the information on your website. While video may be a good option if you have a very large client or member base, make sure you are trained in making such statements. The benefit of a written statement is that you can have many eyes review it before it is distributed. The danger with video is that we tend to over-explain.
The last thing I want to tackle today is something I thought a lot about during the pandemic – do we conduct business as usual? The AOE team has about 90 members, and I found myself pondering what direction I should be giving. We have more than 40 clients that have activities, plans and tasks that need to be completed. As a leader, you too may be wondering about what direction you should provide during a crisis. In 2020, I came to the conclusion that, for our team, the message was to march ahead and perform our activities with the same care and diligence as always yet have great awareness and compassion for the fact that those we are working with may be off work due to no longer having childcare available, schedules may be off due to travel changes, or a myriad of other scenarios. It was important for AOE to move ahead with our activities, to the best of our ability, but we did so with great compassion for ourselves and the world around us.
I think it is also important to recognize that people process stress differently. For some it is to buckle down and be task-oriented, while others can find it hard to focus when operating in fear of the unknown. I recognized some of my team members needed a moment to pause and regroup. I am reminded of a statement my mom used to make when a squabble occurred between me and my two sisters: fair, not equal. Treatment and accommodations for team members may not be equal, but it can be fair.
To wrap up, I hope the one thing you’ll take away from this blog is the importance of communicating early and often. I am interested in what challenges and questions you may have, so please reach out directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.