What Leaders Should Consider About Their Internal Crisis Communication

What You’ll Learn

  • Leadership communication matters more now than ever
  • Five questions leaders should consider when communicating with employees
  • What the acronym “CEO” really means during the current pandemic

Business school teaches many things. But dealing with a global pandemic generally isn’t part of the curriculum.

Now, crisis management is absolutely in the skillset of any leader. But the coronavirus (COVID-19) is something on a completely different, business-changing scale.

The pandemic is being called a “black swan” event. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for which there is no roadmap. This generation of business leaders must navigate an uncertain terrain that includes making profound decisions that impact countless numbers of employees, customers, and beyond.

Something to consider for all executives is how they communicate those decisions – along with everything else related to the pandemic.

With that in mind, here are five questions that executives (and their trusted advisors) should think about as they engage with employees, who are hungry for information, direction, and, well, leadership.

Can You Reach Everyone?

It’s a simple question. But it’s also deceptively hard to answer. Organizations have a myriad of ways to reach their people – intranet, email, collaboration tools, and so on. But that doesn’t mean messages are getting through to everyone. That’s especially the case with everyone’s work-life in flux.

More people than ever are working remotely. Employees who continue to work onsite are coping with new, challenging situations. Maybe in the past, frontline managers were responsible for conveying/reinforcing information. But that process falls apart when there’s no way to deliver person-to-person messages. The pandemic is revealing that the ways leaders communicate with employees often are outdated.

Also, messages sent are not the same thing as messages received. Thought has to be put into making sure everyone can hear the directives from leadership. Preferably, it should be the way we all receive information in our personal lives. On our mobile devices. Through alerts for critical messages.

There also should be a system in place where employees can confirm they’ve received information. Why? Because one recent study found that only 22 percent of comms pros are confident in their ability to measure communication efforts, and one-third have no tracking mechanism at all.

Maybe leaders didn’t realize that they couldn’t reach all of their employees, or that it wasn’t a priority in the past. The pandemic is changing that.

Are You Empathetic?

It’s not so much what you say, but how you say it.

So much of the news that leaders must deliver now can’t be sugar-coated. Hard pills are being swallowed. Often the best that can be done is demonstrating real empathy. Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson received widespread praise for his voice-cracking video to employees about the coronavirus impact on the company because it came from the heart. He spoke with compassion to the pain, frustration, and fears people are feeling.

The Edelman consulting firm, which has done insightful research around brand trust and the pandemic, even has a new definition for the CEO acronym. A recent Edelman blog post described it as the Chief Empathy Officer.

“… Communicating factual information is only half of the job of business leaders. CEOs, in particular, must also serve the emotional needs of their employees through their actions and words. That means it is critical for leaders to be both chief executive officers and chief empathy officers to keep employees engaged and motivated throughout this uncertain time.”

Leaders need to lead with empathy.

Do You Have a Way to Get Feedback?

It’s common for executives to say that they have “open door” policies. But what happens when there aren’t any doors? Or at least their office doors are shut due to quarantine rules?

It can sound especially hollow when executives say that they “want to hear from everyone” if there’s no mechanism in place for people to ask questions and offer ideas. That’s a recipe for adding to the frustration level. That can make people think: “Yeah, but they really want to hear from us.”

There needs to be a process where employees can raise concerns, offer suggestions, and provide feedback. It’s about creating a system that creates a feeling of psychological safety where people are comfortable asking difficult questions and knowing that there won’t be ramifications. It does so much for a company’s culture where a constructive dialogue internally can lead to solutions, rather than forcing people to vent publicly in social media screeds.

Do You Have a Communication Cadence?

Nature abhors a vacuum. In the absence of information, it’s also human nature to fill a communication vacuum with our own stories. And they’re likely to be dark as people project their fears, concerns, and worries. Our minds are trained to go there because we work to protect ourselves from the worst-case scenarios.

Now, more than ever, leaders must create a regular rhythm of messages to employees. This cannot be emphasized enough: they want to hear from you. They want reassurance, guidance, and, fact-based encouragement. Even if there’s no news to report, say that. Even that kind of check-in will calm jittery nerves.

It’s about building trust and letting everyone know that the C-suite is on top of the crisis and doing everything possible to mitigate the impact on frontline workers. When employees have that kind of faith in the leaders, it will be transferred on to how customers feel about the brand.

Are You Making Assumptions?

Part of this echoes back to our first point. Are you just assuming that you can connect with everyone with that latest email? What about frontline employees who lack corporate email addresses?

The broader point here, though, is you can’t assume that employees can read your mind. Be as transparent, honest, and forthright as you can be. That’s especially the case when delivering difficult news. People appreciate when they’re treated like adults. There may be very good reasons why you can’t share everything you know, right now, with employees.

But when everyone already is on edge, it’s a mistake to assume you are delivering information when in reality you’re also raising questions in the eyes of employees.

Think about what you want to say and then put yourself in their shoes. Will they get the message you want them to hear?

So much of the leader’s role today is to provide a beacon of hope. But that light won’t be seen by your people without strong communication.

Post Author

G.I. Sanders

G.I. Sanders is Senior Director, Creative Services at Dynamic Signal. He specializes in entrepreneurship, digital and social media, design, and marketing. G.I. is based in Dallas, TX with his wife and two sons. Passions include technology, startups, music, fitness and sports.