Effective Communication in Times of Crisis
What we say and how we say it matters, now more than ever. In the current climate of Covid-19 we must think harder about our message and its intended audience. Today we communicate more prolifically and through more channels than our predecessors did. This only adds to the challenge when trying to communicate effectively during a crisis.
There is a wealth of informed advice available on the art of effective communication including the importance of listening as well as speaking and the use of body language. My intention in this article is to focus on crisis communications and to share some thoughts and observations on composing messages when under pressure. This is drawn, in large part, on my experience from working on Major Incident Planning with the military, the emergency services and for clients on mass participation sports events. Their experience and expertise in this field provides us with a unique insight as to how we might communicate effectively in times of crisis.
“An effective communication is a communication between two or more persons wherein the intended message is successfully delivered, received and understood.”Business Jargon’s definition of Effective Communication
For the purposes of this article a crisis may be seen as having two phases; the Immediate or initial phase, and the Secondary or sustained phase. Your messaging is impacted by these phases. In the Immediate phase the emphasis should be on clear, concise messaging ensuring the right people get the right message at the right time to allow them to deal with the effects of the crisis. The Secondary phase will be one of sustained messaging focusing on recovery. In this phase the messaging should provide information and motivation to those affected by the crisis.
Whilst the emphasis of the message may vary in the different phases the considerations when constructing the message will be similar:
- What we are saying
- Who is saying it and who we are saying it to
- How we intend to communicate with our audience
- When (and how often) do we need to communicate with our audience
“The single most important lesson of effective communication is this: Focus on clarity. Concentrate on precisions. Don’t worry about constructing beautiful sentences. Beauty comes from meaning, not language. Accuracy is the most effective style of all.”David Gerrold, author of The Man Who Folded Himself
Constructing the message
What are you saying?
In the Immediate phase of a crisis we need to carefully consider what our audience really need to know, or rather what is our key message? It must be clear and concise. What might seem obvious to you may not be obvious to your intended audience. As opposed to a civilian organisation, the military are trained to deal with sudden, sustained crisis. As such their process of crisis communications, especially in the Immediate phase, can provide insight in terms of communication in the current climate, (especially as governments persist in using combative terms to describe the “war” on the virus). When a soldier first confronts, (or comes into contact with) the enemy on the battlefield, they are expected to send a ‘Contact Report’ to their commanding officers. The report, often sent under hazardous conditions, consists of essential information about what the soldier has encountered and what they are doing about it. It is intended as an immediate, concise message giving their commanders timely, accurate information upon which they can act accordingly. Whilst it is rare that these combat conditions occur in the boardroom the need for clear, concise messaging in the immediate phase of a crisis holds true.
It is also important to consider your use of language, tone and the intention of the message. Does the audience speak the same language? Beware the use of specialist language and terminology. For example, the military’s fond use of acronyms or Three Letter Abbreviations, (TLAs as they are known). Unless speaking to a military audience the message will almost certainly be lost if it is couched in abbreviations and terminology. The tone and intention of the message will also be affected by the phase of the crisis. What is the audience supposed to do with the message? Is it a call to action or a message of motivation? In the Immediate phase of a crisis the message may focus on information and immediate action. Therefore, its tone may be more formal and informative. However, as the crisis moves into the Secondary phase the tone may change to be more informal and motivational. Think of the current UK government guidance:
This simple, straight forward message informs and motivates a broad audience through clear, concise guidance to great effect and can be repeated easily across many forms of media.
Who is the message coming from and who is it going to?
The status of the sender will affect the impact of the message, especially in the Immediate phase of a crisis. If the intention of the message is a call to action it should come from a trustworthy source that the audience will respond to. For example, over 27 million people watched the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, deliver his address to the nation on the 23rd March announcing the stay at home order. As a crisis moves into its Secondary phase the desired impact and intention of the message may change which in turn may affect your decision on who the message should come from.
Having a clear understanding of who the message is intended for will also improve its effectiveness. There has been much written recently of the importance of empathy and emotional intelligence when communicating with an audience. Such skills allow the sender to refine the message and ensure it has maximum impact. Whether they be colleagues, clients, friends or family if we put ourselves in their shoes when considering the tone, language and content of the message we can ensure it is delivered in a manner to which they will be most receptive. Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International provided a recent example of this when he sent a short, emotional message to his associates shortly after the recent crisis hit. In it he informed his audience of the considerable impact of the pandemic on the business and the measures they were taking to deal with it. He went on to deliver an emotional, honest and heart felt address reiterating the importance of people at the heart of the company and his intention to guide the business through the current crisis. Sorenson’s message demonstrated a keen understanding of what his audience needed; honest, accurate information delivered with understanding and reassurance.
“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.”Tony Robbins, American author, public speaker and life coach
How are you going to communicate?
In the Immediate phase of a crisis when time to think and react is greatly reduced, having a clearly understood process is critical to effective communication and allows for a faster, coordinated response removing the need to second guess or search for information. The process should cover the key aspects of your crisis communication strategy. It should identify the command structure, assess potential risks, highlight the roles, responsibilities, and resources in place to deal with the crisis and clearly show the communication channels for messaging (often using flowcharts, graphics and tables).
A good example of this can be found in the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme, (JESIP). This lays out the process for coordinating a joint response (i.e. when more than one emergency service is attending) to a major incident. It identifies the need for co-location, communication, coordination, assessment of risk and situational awareness that covers both the Immediate and Secondary phases of a crisis. These guidelines provide emergency service personnel with a clear understanding of the process of action and communication throughout the crisis. Similarly, when considering their response to a major incident, event organisers rely on their Continuity of Operations plans (COOP) to provide staff with a clear, reliable and trustworthy process for crisis control and communications. As with the JESIP it will provide organisers with clear guidelines for the process of dealing with a crisis in both the Immediate and Secondary phases. A good example of this is the Communications Matrix which identifies the audience by sector, the channels of communication available and the pre prepared message for each likely incident.
When do you send your message?
The timing and frequency of messaging should reflect the requirements dictated by the Immediate and Secondary phases of the crisis. Ask yourself what the audience need to know and when they need it by. In the Immediate phase of a crisis critical information is required to ensure the audience can carry out the correct response. However, as the crisis moves into its Secondary phase the intention of the message changes but the requirement for frequent communication remains. For example the military are trained that once the immediate threat from an action has passed there is still a requirement to give ‘Situation Reports’ for the secondary or sustained phase of the action, whereby critical information is given to commanders in a format similar to the ‘Contact Report’ keeping them informed as the situation develops. Consider also the continuing daily briefings delivered by the UK Government at present. The need for information however must be balanced with the risk of over communication. Whilst your audience will need to be kept up to date on the ever changing situation, too much information, given too frequently risks diluting key messages and losing the interest of your audience. Finding the right balance is critical.
“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”Abraham Lincoln
Successfully navigating a business, team or family through times of crisis depends upon effective communication. What we say and who we say it to carries considerable weight. Good messaging is remembered forever and can galvanise people into action, reassuring and motivating them when they need it most. Taking time to think about your message and your audience and to prepare in advance for what might come later is time well spent.
Ask yourself the questions:
- What is my key message?
- What does my audience need to know?
- Who is my audience and how are they feeling?
- Are the lines of communication (internally and externally) clear?
- How often do I need to speak to my audience?