Communicating in a crisis

I’ve learned a lot from working with great communications (comms) marketing and branding professionals. Those experiences have developed my ability to build more effective comms plans to support change, launch tech or get engagement. But, communicating in a crisis? That’s daunting.

So what do we do? How’s it best to communicate now?

Whilst every business is having their own experience in their context, I feel there are some common, comms principles to guide that work.

Be human. Sounds obvious right?

It’s never easy to furlough people, a new scheme, or worse consider restructuring and redundancies; more familiar. These are tough decisions. Legal language is formal and professional more than personal. It makes it hard to strike the right tone.

Being human as a leader, HR professional and a communicator is critical, especially so in a crisis. We can be professional and person-centred, empathetic and sensitive and that has to come across in the tone of voice we use in all our comms. How we treat people now and always, matters.

Be honest. Be as open and transparent as possible. If you can’t be honest now when can you?

Why? This creates trust, builds relationships, minimises fear and anxiety and aids wellbeing. It will help now and long term.

Be clear and consistent. Clear, concise communication is critical. It helps reassure, comfort and calm when life lacks those qualities. Messages need to be consistent so I pick up the right messages, whether I hear them from a manager, HR or see them on the intranet.

Choose your comms tool. There’s a tendency to default to one tool when we have: email, phone, web, intranet, Slack, Yammer, Workplace, MS teams, Skype, conference calls, town halls, team meetings, letters….Pick the best one for the job.

Who’s your audience? Who do you need to communicate and engage with? What do they need and want? Where are they? Knowing this will help you with the message and the methods. Sometimes we’ve little choice but to send a generic all people comms, just not all the time.

Say something. Take stock; don’t stop.

We often start with good intentions only to lose momentum. It’s important to have something to say and it’s always better to say something, albeit short, than leave a void.

Seek feedback and engage. Once you’ve moved from the immediate urgency to take care of your people, their wellbeing and the business, it’s an ideal time to get feedback, learn and improve.

I think a former colleague, thanks Elaine Gosden at Blue Gnu, said it best when she shared this from her network – ‘we’re all in the same storm but we’re certainly not in the same boat’.

Find out what boat your people are in. How are things going? What stories are being shared? What are people thinking, feeling, learning, doing? What’s worked? What’s not?

Asking helps us learn, improve and make people comms dynamic, interactive and engaging. It helps us avoid the pitfalls of a one-way, top down, leader led approach. We also get to hear what is really going on and gain amazing insights, inspiration and learning.

Show learning. Responding in a crisis requires speed, agility and fast decision making. Information changes and decisions made in good faith might need to evolve or change completely. Sharing and showing that we are learning, far from undermining leadership or trust, builds it. Show courage, admit what could have been better, learn and show improvements. This happens infrequently, in my experience, so it is very powerful and engaging when it does.

I’ve noticed comms more during Covid-19 and I don’t think I’m alone. I’m looking for the connections between what companies say, and do and how that aligns with their brand. I’ve seen some good and poor examples. Find examples that inspire you to communicate and engage with your people as best you can. I’ve found mine. Have you found yours?

Sharon Green is founder of Chiara Consultancy, an HR interim, coaching and consultancy helping clients, change, innovate and maximise the power of their people. She works on change projects and is passionate about tech, comms. and engagement. Sharon also runs a Linked In HR Interim Networking Group with 1000 members. https://www.linkedin.com/in/sharongreenchiara/

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