Communication in times of uncertainty

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The essential role of effective communication in managing crisis and organisational change

When companies and organisations find themselves in the midst of uncertainty, communication can be an important tool to help manage the situation and maintain the trust of their stakeholders in times of crisis or change.

The importance of communication in times of crisis

In times of crisis, employees often rely on their employers as the most reliable source of information. A leader’s words and actions can have a significant impact on the well-being of those they manage, helping them to stay safe, adapt emotionally and find meaning in their experience.

The evolution of information needs

People’s information needs evolve in a crisis, and effective communication must do the same. At the beginning of a crisis, communicators must provide instructive information to encourage calm. As people begin to follow safety instructions, communication can focus on adapting to change and uncertainty. Finally, as the end of the crisis looms, information should be increased to help people make sense of the crisis and its impact.

Communicate clearly, simply and frequently

In the early days of a crisis, people’s abilities to absorb information may be limited. It is important to focus on keeping employees safe and healthy by conveying crucial information in a simple, concise and actionable way. In addition, information should be repeated and reinforced regularly to ensure understanding and retention.

Honesty and transparency

Trust is crucial during a crisis. Leaders must be honest about the current situation, clearly differentiating between what is known and what is not known. Avoiding minimising or speculating and judiciously sharing one’s feelings can help strengthen the trust of employees and other stakeholders. When leaders demonstrate their own vulnerability and acknowledge the emotional impact of the crisis, this can help to legitimise employees’ feelings and foster an atmosphere of openness and mutual support.

Transparency means sharing not only the bad news, but also the good news. When the organisation has successes or achieves milestones in the midst of crisis, leaders should share and celebrate these moments. This can offer a much-needed breather from stress and uncertainty, and provide valuable motivation to move forward.

Finding meaning in the chaos

At the end of the crisis, leaders must help people make sense of all that has happened. Establishing a clear vision of how the organisation and its people will emerge from the crisis can help. It is equally important to create a space where people can make their own sense and conclusions about the crisis.

The stages of crisis management

Crises typically go through five distinct stages, each with its own communication needs. These stages include:

  1. Pre-crisis: Developing relationships with stakeholders and partners that will help you respond before an event occurs.
  2. Initiation: An initial message of “this has happened, and we are investigating” is essential. It is crucial that your message gets out quickly so that people know you are looking for solutions.
  3. Maintenance: At this stage, you want to make sure you talk about what happened, what you are doing to fix it, the implications for stakeholders, and how you will make sure it doesn’t happen again.
  4. Resolution: Many organisations forget to communicate during the resolution stage. If you do, you are missing a great opportunity to build trust. During the resolution stage, you should communicate what you have done, where you have been successful, where you have identified gaps and how you are changing processes to correct those gaps.
  5. Evaluation: At this point, leaders should return to the pre-crisis phase, evaluate effectiveness and adjust plans.

At each stage, leaders should strive to develop a dynamic and coherent communication plan, keeping in mind that communication is a continuous process throughout all stages of the crisis.

Crisis Commutications cycle

The key elements of effective crisis communication

Effective crisis communication is based on four key elements: speed, empathy, accuracy and transparency. 

  1. Speed: By using speed to your advantage, you control the narrative. Rapid communication is a crucial way to avoid misinformation and people seeking information from unreliable sources. In the age of social media, speed means getting out in less than an hour with an interim statement.
  2. Empathy: A common mistake leaders make when trying to sound professional, serious and in control is to appear sterile and technical in their communication, showing a lack of empathy. When people are affected, you must show that you care.
  3. Accuracy: Ensuring accurate information is essential to building credibility. The challenge is to balance the need for speed and accuracy.
  4. Transparency: The social expectation is transparency. Stakeholders expect organisations to be open, transparent and honest, and not to hide or disguise crucial information.

The difference between crisis management and crisis communication

It is important to distinguish between crisis management, which refers to how the crisis is handled at the operational level, and crisis communication, which refers to how perceptions are managed. Lessons learned from this crisis include the importance of leaders, being in the business of signal detection, scanning the environment, making sense of the information and taking the perspective of how the crisis may impact your stakeholders, your organisation, the community or you as a leader. Finally, prevention and preparedness, by participating in scenario planning, should be key learnings.

Are you prepared to master your communication challenges?

Effective crisis management requires a great deal of experience and preparation. While I have tried to provide useful guidance in this article, each crisis is unique and presents specific challenges and opportunities. This is where my experience as a communications strategy expert can make a big difference.

If you have identified with the challenges described here, if you feel your organisation could benefit from more effective communication during a crisis, or if you simply want to be better prepared for future uncertainties, I invite you to consider my strategic communication consulting services.

My approach is to work with you to customise communication strategies to help you build and maintain trust with your stakeholders, foster resilience in your organisation and find meaning in the midst of chaos. My goal is to work with you to turn a crisis into an opportunity for growth and learning.

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