How to communicate during a crisis at work

April 22, 2021, 12:00 PM UTC

This year has redefined what it means to lead through a crisis, to navigate unprecedented times, and to communicate in spite of uncertainty. For many leaders, the global pandemic has meant a crash course in crisis management and communications.

It has thrown into sharp relief the need for companies to establish systems and frameworks to provide a touchstone in the turbulence. It has underscored the importance of planning for difficult times and how practicing responses to potential crises can help individuals and institutions better navigate turmoil.

The word crisis comes from the Greek krisis or decision, denoting “a time of danger and difficulty, or a time when a decision must be made.” So it rings true that a crisis puts people under pressure, but also that foundations can be laid for future decisions.

“In challenging times, there’s this idea of people rising to the occasion and delivering heroically, but that’s not often reality,” says Tammy Sanders, a professional development coach and strategic adviser for executive leadership based in Monterey, Calif. “Responding to a crisis is about tapping into a moment that demands a lot of you.”

She advises leaders check in with themselves to understand the degree to which they are bringing their own emotions to a situation. “Doing this can mean the difference between a leader who is effective in crisis and a leader who contributes to the uncertainty of crisis,” she says.

If individuals should train themselves to better adapt to adversity, so too should companies.

“Practicing in advance is the only way of mitigating behavioral changes that happen under pressure,” explains Rupert Reid, the managing director of Security Exchange 24, a specialist security company that helps businesses prevent, manage, and recover from critical security incidents.

Desktop exercises can help identify who should join a company’s crisis management team, often called the CMT. Reid suggests a representative for each of the key areas impacted in a crisis—or the “5Ps”: people, property, product, partnerships, and press—along with a chair and record keeper.

Reid advises adding a half-hour to the end of quarterly board meetings to review operating risks and to consider where plans need to be adapted. He suggests an annual desktop exercise, taking into account any changes in staff in the preceding 12 months.

Sanders says a decision-making framework brings focus in uncertain times. She advocates the RACI formula to identify who is responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed.

“In a crisis, there are two broad spectrum responses: I’m responsible for everything or I can’t be responsible for any of this. I think RACI gives people the identifier: This is what you do. So everyone understands their role and how they can contribute and the degree to which they should be contributing,” she says.

The final P of Reid’s 5-P process refers to press, highlighting the need for communications to be central to all crisis management planning.

“From the start, you need to be thinking about who you need to communicate with, internally and externally, consistency of message, and ensuring no mixed messages,” says Reid, noting that stakeholders in communications terms are not always obvious.

Effective communications systems are central to mitigating the impact of a crisis, says Lucy Kueng, a digital transformation expert and visiting research fellow at the Reuters Institute at Oxford University.

“You need to have really good connective tissue inside your organization so you can communicate these messages, and there needs to be a lot of trust in the leadership. These things you can’t fit retrospectively after the crisis has occurred,” she explains.

She says this tends to be more challenging for hierarchical organizations used to top-down messaging, and she advocates the value of systems in which critical information can flow up as well as down.

No matter how much planning takes place, some crises still occur. Fortunately, there are practical steps companies can take. These can be broadly separated into understanding what information is needed, how it should be shared and with whom, and how our responses as individuals and institutions underpin our communications.

Santiago Lyon is a former vice president at the Associated Press. During his time overseeing the news agency’s global photo department, he dealt with crises including the death, injury, and kidnapping of colleagues, often in hostile environments.

“Quality information is critical, and getting the quality information requires somebody you can speak to on the ground of the right makeup in the sense that they are focused, calm, serious, and understand what it was that you needed,” he says. “It may be a truism, but you get the answers to the questions you ask. So asking the right questions, trying to ascertain what it is you need to know, [is crucial].”

This pandemic year has underscored just how elusive certainty can be, which adds an even more challenging dimension to crisis communications.

But even with that uncertainty, for journalist and media trainer Keme Nzerem of Nzerem Limited, there’s a simple acronym he offers his clients, which is CARE: care/compassion, action, reassurance, and empathy. 

“You have to put the people who are most affected at the front of everything because it’s these people everyone will sympathize with. It’s not performative. If you want to look like you care, then care,” he explains. “The discussion is going to happen anyway, with or without you. Do not wait until you have all the information—get out there and communicate. In the first instance you might want to put out a holding statement. And then, give your organization a human face by providing a spokesperson, someone senior enough to be taken seriously.”

Lyon reminds leaders there are often families to consider in communications, and he reminds companies of the importance of ensuring they have the next of kin details of all those to whom they have a duty of care.

Sanders advises leaders to ensure you don’t underestimate your audience. She says doing so risks insulting them, which can quickly impact your reputation internally and externally. Faced with uncertainty, she advocates for “confirming reality: Say what you can and say what you can’t do.”

“We can’t bring certainty to uncertain situations, but we can find the one thing that we can offer folks that will stay steady no matter what happens, and I think that’s something that resonates both within teams and beyond the organization as well,” Sanders notes. “This is where an organization’s values really kick in. If you’re really practicing these values, they should be the things you can hold on to, no matter what happens.”

It’s back to Nzerem’s idea that crisis communications cannot be performative.

This year has offered many lessons in how to communicate in difficult times. It has reminded us it’s not always possible to project complete certainty, but it is important to project authenticity.

In years to come, COVID-19 is likely to provide a valuable lesson to business leaders on how to navigate turmoil, but for now, as Kueng concludes, “The challenge for leaders pushing through digital transformation responding to COVID is we are in a situation of real-time event development so there is no acknowledged best practice. All you can do is do the work, do the thinking, make the best guess you can, and inform people of that.”