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Seven Rules of Communication during a Crisis

Raghu Raman, 12 April, 2020

Three primal emotions — hunger, procreation and fear are the bedrock of all living beings. Of these, fear is accentuated in humankind because of our ability to imagine. Fear heightens during uncertain times leading to paralysis, kneejerk responses, psychological trauma and in some cases, much worse. Communication, therefore, becomes crucial during crises.

1. Wrest control of the narrative at the earliest stage.

Humans abhor a vacuum, and in the absence of credible information, they consume anything that takes its place, even if they are irrational narratives. People who would never take investment advice from WhatsApp messages will consume untested drugs or quack remedies advocated by the same source. That is the nature of fear and uncertainty. Leaders must not allow this vacuum to occur. Even if they don’t have all the answers — sharing what they know and what they don’t, is better than an ominous silence. In the absence of information, people will assume the worst.

2. Establish credibility

Establishing credibility is crucial in an environment of misleading and untruthful information. And the only way to do that is by telling the truth, especially if it is bad news. People rally around leaders who promise ‘blood, sweat and tears’ if they believe them and dismiss those promising the moon — if they don’t. For instance, it is inevitable that many jobs will be lost because of the pandemic. Rather than avoiding the elephant in the room leaders must communicate the reality so that employees can prepare for it. They can assuage fears by assuring employees of a humane handholding, but if they sugar-coat bad news, no further communication from them will be trusted.

3. Keep a single source of information and update frequently

Companies must establish a crisis management team which has the authority and expertise to communicate a singular version to all the stakeholders. Multiple channels of information confuse people, and they resort to the grapevine. Fluid situations during crises require frequent updating. It is better to have a live platform like a simple website than sending longwinded memos. All channels of communication, including social media, must be leveraged. If the company use its intranet, it must cater to the lowest common denominator. Many employees may not have laptops, smartphones or even stable internet connections. SMSs that reach are far better than elaborate webpages that don’t.

4. Leaders must be ‘seen’ frequently at the frontlines.

Leaders will be understandably preoccupied during crisis situations. But they cannot outsource organisational morale to the corporate communication department.

Senior leaders must dedicate time for personal communication. Morale plummets beyond recovery if employees don’t ‘see’ their leaders during a crisis. Strategic leaders must make their presence felt, even if it is virtual. Also, this is a time for praising effort, not critiquing shortfalls.

5. Balance reality and alarmism

Cognitive biases are amplified during a crisis. For example, there is a disproportionate focus on COVID -19 fatalities which are only a fraction of other communicable diseases. “Availability heuristic”– or the same bad news bombarded through multiple channels — accentuates alarm. The demeanour of leaders, the wording of communique and contextualising statistics are critical subliminal aspects to prevent panic. All communications must be tested for cognitive biases before release.

6. Craft messaging to cater to every stakeholder

Employees are anxious about jobs; customers are concerned about supply; vendors are worried about payments and shareholders are nervous about the loss in value. And everyone is apprehensive about cashflow. The messaging should provide clarity to each stakeholder about their primary concern and steps taken to address them. Leaders should communicate their sources of information and reasoning behind their decisions. There should also be a channel for stakeholders to respond with suggestions or queries. And the replies should be as quick as possible — even if the leaders don’t know all the answers yet.

7. Keep the communication Empathetic and Optimistic

Corporate communication is usually brusque and ‘business-like’. That is where the term comes from. But crisis communication needs genuine empathy and concern. Companies must be emotive and understanding of the challenges faced by their stakeholders. Many employees may not have the wherewithal to work from home; some may not have privacy. There could be family illnesses among vendors; outsourced staff could be cash strapped.

Crises are the crucible for demonstrating core values that companies espouse. Action on ground inscribes those values far more than public relations or internal communication efforts. For instance, the steps Tata group took for their stakeholders in the aftermath of 26/11 attacks became global case studies in corporate social responsibility.

The human spirit has survived plagues, pandemics, world wars and even the ice age. A crisis may seem overwhelming while in the midst of it, but they eventually pass, and most emerge from it stronger. Crises also bond society closer. For instance, during the 2005 Mumbai floods, slum dwellers helped travellers stuck in the highways, and countless people gave shelter to strangers. Similarly, there are many stories of neighbours assisting each other during the lockdown. Companies must reach back into their history and narrate stories of past crises and how they overcame them.

The address by Queen Elizabeth on 6th of April is a textbook example of communication during crises. She thanked all stakeholders in the battle against the pandemic on behalf of the nation, reminded the British people of their national resoluteness, lauded the human spirit of compassion, recollected a similar address she had given during the Second World War when children were separated from their parents, gave the assurance of victory if Britain remained united and ended with an optimistic promise — ‘We will meet again”. All in four minutes!

The author is founding CEO NATGRID and former President Risk & Security, Reliance Industries. Follow him @captraman

The write-up was published in medium.com

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