In times of crisis or uncertainty, it is essential that leaders take proactive measures to communicate with their employees and customers.

The coronavirus poses exceptional challenges for multiple reasons.  First, there are so many unknowns about it how far it will spread and how devastating it will be from a human health perspective.  Second, it is affecting both our societal norms and the economy in equal measure.  Third, it is a global pandemic; what happens thousands of miles away in Italy or Iran is now affecting every community here in the U.S.

Combined, these challenges can make it hard for leaders and organizations to know what to say because of all that’s unknown.

But it would be unwise to curtail or not communicate, even if you don’t have all the answers.

During times of crisis, people want assurance their leaders are knowledgeable of the situation.  They also want to know you have empathy for their situation. And most importantly, they need to see that you have some plan for protecting them.

Learning from the Great Recession

I remember when the Great Recession hit my company.  Within a matter of weeks, we lost our largest client and our third-largest client. Our second-largest client slashed our budget by almost 50%. The loss and reduction of these clients was devastating. It not only threatened the livelihood of the agency, but it also meant several employees were going to lose their jobs.

At the time, I was a relatively young leader. I didn’t know whether the company was going to survive or not.  What’s more, I knew some people were going to be let go.  It was hard for me to get my arms around what was happening and come up with a “plan.”  Walking around the office each day, I felt and saw the unease with each of my employees.

It was at this point that I took the advice we give to our clients every single day when it comes to crisis communication.  I made a commitment to follow these crisis communication best practices:

Crisis Communication Best Practices

Communicate Frequently:  I would call all-team meetings or send emails as often as I could when I had news to share, whether it was bad or good.  Forbes recently published an article that provides more insight into how frequently leaders should communicate with their employees. It reiterates how important it is to repeat your message in order for it to sink in.

Communicate with Honesty and Transparency:  I often reminded my team that I did not know how or when the financial crisis would end.  But I would share with them the financial realities of the agency.  This would include showing them the current revenue situation and projected forecasts. They could clearly see how the agency and their positions were being affected.

Communicate with Empathy:  This is key for leadership communication.  During a time of crisis, everyone is concerned about their own self-preservation; they want to know how they are personally going to be affected.  Research cited in a Harvard Business Review article is illuminating: When it comes to empathy and communicating change, many CEOs are going simply on their “gut.”  In fact, more than 50 percent of the CEOs surveyed for the article “hadn’t fully considered their team’s sentiment about the change.”  If you’re not plugged into the fears your employees or customers are thinking about, your messages to them will be off the mark.

Communicate with Confidence: Even if you don’t have all the answers, it’s important that you communicate with confidence.  This can mean coming fully prepared with what you’re going to say during a staff meeting.  Or, it can mean you’re going to commit to communicating frequently.  People desire leadership.

If you’re not confident when you communicate, you’re contributing to the uneasiness people are experiencing.

Keep In Mind

Of course, any part of your communication mix should include staying current on the facts about the coronavirus from credible resources.  The most reliable resources continue to be the CDC and the World Health Organization.

Remember: A Crisis is Also an Opportunity

Finally, it’s important to remember that every crisis is also an opportunity.  A crisis provides leaders and organizations the unique chance to display courage and provide direction.

I hope these crisis communication best practices and related thoughts help.  I’m interested in any additional thoughts or comments you have.  What’s worked for you when it comes to creating a crisis communication plan?

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