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4 tips to help leaders communicate during a crisis

5 min read


Even though it happened over 20 years ago, the memory is vivid: While working in corporate America, I was waiting for a fax for one of my projects. Upon hearing the sound of an incoming fax, I grabbed the paper off the machine, read it, and then lost all thought of the task on which I had been so urgently focused.

The message was a memo from our company’s CEO, addressed to the entire organization of 5,000 global employees. He was writing to let us know that there had been a fatality at one of our manufacturing facilities. The news was heartbreaking: A young man on break from his college studies was killed in a forklift accident on the receiving dock.

I immediately shared the news with my team of colleagues, several of whom knew this young man because his parents also worked for our organization. It was a tragic loss that sent shock waves through our company for days to come. In his message, the CEO briefly outline the facts of the situation, then moved on to encourage us to band together and help one another as we came to terms with the loss of a fellow employee.

Years later, this story stays with me not only for the obvious reason of a young life tragically cut short, but also for the lesson it taught me about leadership communication during a crisis: The CEO’s message was compassionate, highly personal and most importantly, timely. The accident occurred a mere 90 minutes prior to the fax arriving in departments across the entire organization. Keep in mind this was before the instant communication capability of e-mail, texts and social media, making the speed with which this information was delivered even more astounding.

Many times, when tragic (and potentially litigious) circumstances occur, leaders are counseled to “get the facts straight” and limit the amount of detail in an initial communication. Luckily for us on that sad day, our wise CEO knew something equally important: In an information vacuum, people make things up. So, it’s smarter to communicate quickly rather than let the rumor mill do the job for you, especially when the news is especially dire.

Ruth Walker, president of Due North Marketing Communications and a corporate communications professional, has advised many executives during times of crisis. Walker says, “Remember that, in the absence of information, the grapevine will flourish. Yes, it’s important to be correct with information but, depending on the situation, timeliness may also be important.”

Humans have a strong need to “connect the dots,” especially in times of tragedy when we seek to make sense of an unfathomable situation. Regrettably, when information is lacking, people connect those dots with alarming inaccuracy. Communicating as a leader during the best of times is challenging, and to do so effectively during a crisis requires additional attention to the dynamics of the human psyche.

Here are four ways that leaders can reduce chance of people filling in the blanks with inaccurate information:

Be timely. It’s far better to succinctly and accurately report what is known as soon as possible than to wait even another 30 minutes to gather additional data. Leaders can (and indeed, should) provide additional updates as information becomes available. If details are sparse, Walker says, it’s OK to say, “This is a complicated situation and we don’t have all the information yet. Here is what we know so far…”

Humanize the message. Stating the facts clearly is a given. Leaders who go the extra mile and do so with compassion appeal to people’s humanity, helping them receive difficult news with less psychological trauma. Too much focus on “just the facts” sends the message that a leader is only interested in getting “back to business” as soon as possible. Yes, it’s painful or uncomfortable to talk about this and it’s likely that emotions will run high. Leaders who can deliver bad news with compassion gain the trust of their followers and also humanize themselves in the process.

Create a feedback loop. One of the best ways to reduce the flow of inaccurate information is to establish a channel for two-way feedback. If the message is delivered in written form, be sure to provide a means for people to connect with you. Be as specific as possible. For example, state, “I know you’re in a different time zone, so feel free to call me on my personal cell after business hours,” if this isn’t a typical arrangement. If you are talking face-to-face, or voice-to-voice, build in ample time for questions.

Follow up. The more distressful or surprising the information, the more time people will need to process it. Even when you provide time for questions during the initial notification, people will need time to sort through their emotions and formulate questions. Don’t add to the information vacuum by assuming “no news is good news.” And, don’t be surprised if the questions come many days after the event.

Communicating during times of crisis offers leaders an opportunity to both demonstrate compassion during a time of trouble, and to also set the stage for others to provide much needed support to one another. Years ago, that’s exactly what our CEO did, and it remains an indelible leadership lesson for me to this day. His message didn’t lesson the sadness we felt, but it rallied us as a community and helped us process our grief.

Jennifer V. Miller is a leadership development consultant whose writing and digital training materials help business professionals better lead themselves and others so they can achieve greater career success. Follow Jennifer on LinkedIn and sign up for her quarterly e-newsletter offering tips for the savvy workplace professional.

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