In recent months, the Logos Institute for Crisis Management & Executive Leadership team has studied institutional responses to COVID-19. From this, we have created 12 best practices for crisis management:
- Begin all communication, whether written or verbal, with a statement of values, beliefs, intent or motivation. Don’t dive directly into the facts. Audiences are far more likely to read, listen, understand or remember when the leader creates an emotional connection first, and that begins with the statement of values.
- Show you care. Calibrate communication with empathy.
- Be direct: Don’t use euphemisms. Euphemisms are confusing to audiences, especially when they are under stress. If an employee has died because of COVID-19, then say so.
- Tell the truth: Avoid misleading half-truths. Remember that you’re in this for the long term. And eventually, you’ll need employees to continue to want to work for you, and customers to want to do business with you. If you know that layoffs are likely, and you’re asked whether there will be layoffs, then it may be tempting to say something true: “At this point there is no plan to lay people off.” This may be true, but the question was not about whether there is a plan but rather about whether there would be layoffs. A better response would be: “We haven’t made a final decision, and we will do whatever we can to protect employees, but layoffs are a possibility.”
- Address all relevant dimensions of the crisis. These include public health, business crisis, economic crisis, information crisis, competence of government crisis, social crisis and mental health crisis. It may be tempting to stay in a single frame, say, a business crisis, but your stakeholders are experiencing all seven dimensions of the crisis.
- Remember that expectations are dynamic. Yesterday’s expectations may not be helpful today. Calibrate against current expectations.
- Communicate at multiple levels. Employees and other stakeholders need to hear from more than the CEO. At this point, it is better to over-communicate than to under-communicate.
- Align on values; allow granular detail appropriate to each level. Whether it’s a CEO, EVP, VP, department head or project team leader, there should be alignment on the level of values, belief, intent or motive. But at each level, the granularity should be appropriate to the level of the leader who is communicating the message.
- Convey a positive attitude that balances urgency against the provoking of panic. Effective leaders keep the focus on the future, even while demonstrating urgency. But emotions are contagious. Leaders need to stop short of provoking panic.
- Express emotion, vulnerability and humility. Arrogance makes empathy impossible, and empathy is what gets leaders and organizations through a crisis. Leaders are often reluctant to express emotion or vulnerability. But the most effective ones do.
- Get good at being on TV. Whether they are recording a video for public consumption or conducting a meeting via Zoom or Skype or GoToMeeting, leaders need to learn how to best communicate through a video camera.
- Remember, people are feeling very fragile. People are scared; they’re worried about their jobs and their friends and their families. People’s work lives and personal lives have been upended. And some people are being stigmatized. Now is a time that calls for kindness. Effective leaders care.
Helio Fred Garcia is president of the crisis management firm Logos Consulting Group and executive director of the Logos Institute for Crisis Management & Executive Leadership. He is the author, most recently, of “Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It,” published by Radius Book Group in 2020.
Starting on Aug. 10, Garcia will lead PRSA’s Crisis Communication Virtual Master Class, an in-depth immersion on best practices related to crisis management. Garcia will host classes from 1–5 p.m. ET on Aug. 10, 11, 17 and 18.
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