On June 4, 1940, Winston Churchill stood in front of the British Parliament and delivered one of the more famous speeches in history. “We shall never surrender,” he said.
In that speech, Churchill had to acknowledge the military disaster in France, the likely surrender of the French and the possibility that the Nazis would invade Britain. All of this while somehow preserving the faith of the British public in the ultimate victory. There are times when the news is dire but hope is badly needed. Those are times when leaders need to communicate the most.
Communicating during times of crisis requires a very thoughtful approach and presents additional pressure and challenges on a leader to find the right words and the right tone of voice to deliver the bad news but still reassure both clients and team members.
The ultimate goal of communication in a time of crisis is to maintain your credibility and relevance and to seek the trust and charter to act. In a crisis that is external in its nature, you as a leader have to accept that you do not control the crisis, its source or its outcome. What you seek through communicating is not to create an illusion of control or provide an interpretation of events but rather show that you remain relevant in this situation and win the trust of your team and clients.
In our experience, the right approach to communicating during a crisis means doing some or all of the following things:
- Recognizing the need to communicate. When the situation is difficult, when the impact is significant, leaders have to recognize that it is time to speak and speak in a voice that is heard over the turmoil. Not hearing from the pilot during severe turbulence is likely to result in a panic in the cabin. Even if the situation is outside of your control and is not the result of your actions, if your team or clients are affected in a significant way, you have to stand in front of them and deliver the news and accept the responsibility for guiding them through the crisis. If you have not reached out to clients at this point, you definitely should. What is also very important, though, is to talk to your team. Many advisory firms are great at reaching out to clients but often forget to speak to their own teams.
- Fully acknowledging the situation, including all the bad news. In a time of crisis, trying to spin a story that downplays its severity will severely undermine your credibility. If you want others to follow you, you have to fully acknowledge what has happened and what is the impact on your constituency. In describing the situation, you should be factual, specific and clear. Your communication should both fully recognize the scope of the impact but also define its limits.
- Speaking with gravity and resolve. A serious situation requires a serious tone and a serious medium. Times of crisis require formality in the channel and the tone of voice. Attempts to use more casual language or a more casual medium will appear to downplay the seriousness of what is happening and will not have the desired effect on your audience. I receive many e-mails from advisors since I am included in their CRM systems, and I have seen many messages that try to be more casual by addressing the recipients as “friends” or even by using emojis. Normally, that can be fine, but not in such a dire situation.
- Avoiding the temptation to speculate. It is very tempting to suggest that the resolution of the crisis will arrive through external means and will arrive relatively quickly. It is even more tempting to cite an expert or two already making such optimistic predictions. However, your audience is also probably hearing from other numerous “experts” predicting exactly the opposite outcome. Speculating about it will damage your credibility. Instead, you should focus on the variables you control. I see a lot of messages that try to forecast when the virus infections will subside. Unfortunately, we are not qualified to do that (none of our clients are physicians) and the speculation is unfair to our clients.
- Focusing on your determined actions. Your communication should not focus on the probabilistic (what might happen) but on the deterministic (what you will be doing). Churchill did not speculate on whether the Nazis would attempt an invasion of Great Britain. He fully acknowledged the possibility and then focused on what the British could do about it—fight on the beaches and the landing grounds.
- Preparing for difficult times ahead. The first communications about a crisis usually occur in the onset, which means realistically there are a lot of hard times ahead. Good communication during a crisis will help you acknowledge and prepare for the hardships that follow. If you avoid talking about possible future deterioration, it damages your credibility.
- Managing the frequency of your outreach. If you communicate too much, it looks like a panic response. While proactive contacts help your relevance and credibility, if there are no new important events and you have no new decisions to announce, simply saying “We are still watching this” may detract from rather than enhance your relationship with your constituencies.
- Validating or invalidating other voices. Your team and your clients are hearing a cacophony of voices at this point about the crisis. One of the best things you can do as a leader is point out which are the credible sources of information and which are the voices that should be ignored. Statements such as “we continue to follow the advice of …” can be very instrumental in guiding your clients and team and also explaining your decisions.
- Acting rather than reacting. Reactions are defensive in nature and present you as someone who does not have control or insight into the situation. Your message needs to focus on actions, rather than reactions to statements or events.
- Defining the ultimate victory. A crisis is a threat but not a defeat. It is up to you as a leader to remind your team and your clients about the ultimate victory. Good communication will remind everyone what that looks like and why it is still relevant and important. This will also put all of your subsequent actions in context.
In times of crisis, human beings seek the guidance of a leader. Leadership is needed the most when the times are the worst and hope is difficult to come by. Accepting the responsibility and providing skillful guidance allows professionals to earn the trust and respect of their clients.