The Art of Managing Organisational Change and Crisis Communications
During this pandemic leadership skills, particularly our ability to handle change and communication, has proven crucial. To many, such unprecedented changes incite disruption, fear, and a high need for communication.
Considering this, I’ve collected some pointers for leaders in multiple industries based on best practice. Taken from courses with the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and drawing from my background in psychology and emergency, the advice is based on the CERC model (Crisis, Emergency, Risk, Communication), and I hope it inspires business leaders in need of communication guidance.
Be the first to convey information, even if you don’t have much to say. The aim here is to reduce miscommunication. Studies show that most people are inclined to believe the first reports they hear, no matter if it’s right or wrong. Focus on facts, and remember to keep it down to short, simple messages. Communicate with people, not to people.
Be right. If you are wrong, don’t go back on your word. Instead, use phrases such as based on the information I/we had at the time. It not only increases your credibility but also demonstrates confidence. Make your messages accessible and straightforward, keeping in mind that people will judge them on content, who delivers them and how they are circulated.
Be credible. Tell only the truth, and if information changes, make sure to provide timely updates by communicating often – even if the message is undesirable, people react better to bad news than to no news at all. By mitigating misinformation, you also convey a sense of leadership and control that people look to in times of ambiguity. With that in mind, aim to tell people what to do instead of what not to do. Repeat yourself often, avoid speculation and only communicate what you know.
Express empathy. It’s important to acknowledge emotions like fear and anxiety. Demonstrating empathy helps build a rapport of trust between you and your organisation. Identifying your staff/public’s feelings shows you understand and care. Don’t say we are thinking of you, instead use inclusive expressions such as during times like these, we are all feeling a bit uncertain. Likewise, don’t say our heart and prayers go out to you, but these are difficult and scary times. It’s not about eliminating fear; it’s about helping people manage it.
Promote action. For example, by encouraging simple actions like washing your hands. By doing so, you make people feel like they’re part of the emergency solution, not the problem. This inclusivity encourages empowerment during events out of our control. Staying busy makes people feel less anxious (much like when they started buying toilet paper). It’s a myth that people panic in an emergency. The truth is that only a few panic, while most respond in a way that makes sense for them based on their experience and the information they receive.
Show respect. Ensure that your communication doesn’t create stigmatisation of certain groups. Be considerate and always remember that those you speak with might have lost loved ones, their livelihood and so on. Make your angle one of consideration to culture and do not dismiss questions.
I have used the above approach and model with different companies during COVID-19, with great success. The most important thing to remember is that those affected by an emergency, pandemic or change are prone to judge the way a response is handled based on trust. You can promote this trust by simply following through with your promises
If you deviate from your assurances or don’t convey information effectively, any future communications will be poorly received. Without trust, people may also ignore public health recommendations and jeopardise public safety, as seen multiple times during the COVID 19 crisis.
Remember: The right message at the right time from the right person can save lives.