What a Leader's Voice Needs during Crisis
In the past several weeks, we’ve seen many examples of leadership—and attempts at leadership. I am going to talk about the voice these leaders raise and attempt to raise, as opposed to their policies, decision-making or politics.
Here are six elements that must be present in a leader’s voice during a crisis... Well, any time, to be honest.
If it isn’t correct, don’t spread the word. During a time of crisis, rumors are rampant. Don’t contribute to them. Get the facts and information correct,and state it clearly once you are sure of it. If you hear rumors that impact your organization, correct it with accurate and supportable information. Be accurate.
If you don’t know, here is a good way to respond: “I’m sorry, but we don’t have that information at this time. We do not want to share information that is just speculation or guesswork. We will share the information when we have it and it is confirmed and accurate."
Again, provide accurate information—but not too early, not too late, which leads me to…
I have three sub-messages: Be prepared. Be proactive. Be consistent.
Every organization should have a crisis plan done well before a crisis occurs—everything from a financial plan to crisis communications protocols and a recession plan. Our leadership team prepared a recession plan “just in case” several months ago, before the virus was even known.
Regarding proactive approaches and timing in a crisis, assume that people are hearing “things” and are worried or confused. Don’t wait too long to get your initial message out to the audiences. You really need to address because they’ve likely heard or thought SOMETHING in a large crisis. Control your message.
Finally, don’t think you’re done because you sent out one email about how your company is dealing with COVID-19 or a workplace shooting or a faulty product. Be forthcoming and then give forthcoming updates and messages that close the loop. Communicate frequently to the audiences who want to know for as long as the crisis truly exists. (Kudos to the federal, state, and local governmental entities for their frequent updates on many different channels.)
However, don’t feel you have to tell your audiences everything every five minutes. Just don’t let things lapse way too long, or people will wonder what the heck happened to your organization. Once the crisis is over, do have the good sense and good taste from a public relations perspective to stop talking about it if it is no longer relevant.
If you're not an expert on the topic, even though you are the leader giving voice, bring an expert in. For example with COVID-19, unless you're a public health or infectious disease expert, please invoke or cite someone or an agency that is. For example in this case, CDC is a respected source to refer people to, as is the Department of Health and Human Services in Nevada, see nvhealthresponse.nv.gov. KPS3 helped them ramp up this expert website in 72 hours (talk about timely!). Think Dr. Fauci for President Trump. Think expert testimony in a court of law. Bring in, quote, refer to an expert that is accurate, respected, and honest.
For goodness sake, don’t lie or be purposefully misleading. If you don’t know, say so. If you can’t comment on something, say why, as much as you legally or ethically can. If you have done a good assessment of the situation and know that there may be negative consequences, be honest but not brutally detailed with your internal team. For example, if other industries, or even other competitors, are cutting staff or making other cuts, know that your internal audience will have heard about it.
Not acknowledging the seriousness of the situation or reassuring people that you have a plan/are making wise decisions isn't fair to anyone. And they know that you are not being 100% truthful. It won’t take long for most people to figure out that you are blowing smoke up their skirts. Then, forget about being a trusted voice in the future—crisis or otherwise.
Boy, is this the challenge for most companies, organizations, leaders, communicators, marketers, parents… you name it. Add to this particular crisis the challenge that you can’t have in-person interactions.
Rob Gaedtke and Kevin Jones (our CEO and COO respectively) have implemented some very insightful activities to keep our team engaged while working apart. Using Google hangouts (our stated preferred means of getting together, as opposed to simply a conference call), we see each other twice a week for an all-team “face to face” meeting where Rob gives an update about the situation, working from home, the company, and the outlook. Kevin has implemented an 8:30 a.m. “virtual coffee” each workday to hop on Google hangouts, have morning coffee with each other, catch up on the day before and get ready for the day ahead. We also encourage virtual lunch out with co-workers, virtual cocktail hours, etc.
Stay in touch as “face to face” as possible.
This is one you may need a good colleague or honest family member to tell you how you’re doing. If you deliver an important message, but don’t come across as sincere or authentic, then you have two choices:
- Look for another high-level person in your organization who has the authenticity gene for communications style. (And this should be immediate if you are indeed in the middle of a crisis.)
- Seek something for the longer-term by getting training, feedback, and coaching on your style and delivery. Oh, and put your ego aside to accept, understand it (and yourself), and embrace it. Then practice, get feedback, alter, practice… You get it. Rinse and repeat.
There is so much to think about, deal with, and manage right now. However, communicating as a good leader is critical, even if you're not a CEO, an elected official, or the head of household. These principles apply to so many situations and so many relationships.
If you need help, reach out. We at KPS3 hope you and yours stay safe and healthy.