The current coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on global leadership, good and bad. Senior ranking officials from around the world have taken to our screens in an attempt to calm nerves and communicate tangible strategies. The actions of some of the world’s leading figures provide signposts for how successful communications strategies should be carried out during times of crisis. Here are six of them:
Positive words are useless without positive actions, and particularly in an age of social media, people can see when what you vocalise does not match what you do. In Scotland, the country’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, was forced to resign when it emerged that she had broken from her own lockdown protocol, and made two trips to her second home. Particularly today, it is not possible for businesses, brands, government institutions, or whomever it may be, to mismatch communications and actions. Leadership by example is key.
2. Know when communications should come from the top
When the circumstances become extra ordinary, personal communications should come from the very top level of an institution. We have seen this during recent weeks and months through examples like the UK’s, Boris Johnson and France’s, Emmanuel Macron, while leaders on the continent such as Ghana’s President, Nana Akufo-Addo and South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa have drawn praise for their strong and direct leadership.
It is particularly interesting to note that female leaders such as New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, have performed particularly well during the pandemic, providing calm analysis during regular press briefings.
However, it is also important to know when to turn the tap off on these particular communications. If you look for instance at the latter two examples given above, we see these appearances being made very sparingly. This is also an important consideration to factor in, because you do not want to water down the impact that the words of a CEO or Managing Director can bring. Top level communications should be reserved for top level issues.
3. Strike a balance between transparency and strategy
At a time of extreme crisis, be that on a global social level or be it say, a Twitter storm engulfing a brand, it is important not to shy away from the realities or the severity of the situation. You have to accept the position you are in, any mistakes that have been made, and outline the necessary concessions. But equally crises are not a time for finger pointing or self-loathing. It is essential to present the facts, provide a positive action plan of how the situation can be rectified, and outline the exact steps that you are going to follow in moving forward.
Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York, offers a great example of this policy in action. If you watch his press briefings he comes out, presents the facts, and then gives his informed opinion based on what the data shows. He is informed, transparent, empathetic, but also positive, looking for solutions rather than problems. It is important to be as transparent as possible without causing further alarm, and therefore doing greater damage. Your first priority as a leader is to keep those around you calm, then to inform, then to influence the steps that will be taken next.
4. Be prepared
At RDF we talk about taking an Atlantean approach to communications, rolling out messaging from the inside out. Of course, nobody can ever foresee a black swan event like a global pandemic coming down the track, but if you have senior members of your team like the CEO, COO, Head of communications, CFO, etc. meeting regularly as a tight-knit group, then you’ll maximise internal communications at the highest level, and ensure that you are all on the same page when a crisis does come about. Control the things you can control and be flexible in reacting and adapting to those that you cannot.
5. Operate with empathy
Understand that during a time of crisis, whether that’s a macro level event, a public relations scandal, or a staff restructure, the people around you are likely to be anxious and apprehensive about the situation in which they find themselves. Forgive those around you (including the press) if they appear to be acting extra combative, negative, or unreasonable, and be sensitive to their needs. Be transparent, soften your communications as much as possible, and focus on potential future positives, however negative the current situation may be. For example, if your business is currently being forced to furlough people, then it might be important to emphasise the benefits of any relevant palliative schemes that might have been put in place as well as the likelihood of future employment once life begins to return to some kind of normal – which it will.
6. Conscientiously navigate the modern media-technology landscape
In an age of ‘always on’ it is important to remember that communications do not begin and end with what you say directly to the press. The pitfalls of social media have long been established, but even internal communications tools such as email need to be approached carefully. Do not put anything down in an email that you would not be prepared to go on record as saying to the wider world – leaks happen!
This level of conscientiousness becomes even more important at a time when Zoom communications are so prevalent, and people – even those communicating from the very top – are likely to feel more at ease outside of an office setting. Be aware of your thoughts, and your words, and your audience, and remember that even a flippant, throwaway comment – if interpreted in the wrong way – caries potential reputational risk.
Ultimately, communicating during a time of crisis involves striking the right balance between transparency, empathy, and positivity. It is also important, at all times, to expect the best and prepare for the worst. Because external things will happen (and even some internal ones) that are outside your control, and the more prepared you and your team are in terms of your communications, the stronger you will be when the inevitable downtimes come along.