The Gatehouse Blog

Getting leadership communications right in a crisis

Leading responsibly, with empathy and integrity, is always essential, but especially during crises. We find ourselves in unfamiliar and unprecedented territory, as COVID-19 has radically changed the way we live, work and interact with others. Against a backdrop of health concerns, anxiety for what the future will bring, job losses and concerns over business continuity, never before have leaders been put under such pressure and scrutiny. As such, the actions and words of leaders are more important now than ever – a moment in time that will remain in the minds of employees long after this crisis is averted.

More than ever, employees are looking to leaders for guidance, compassion and consistency – making the role of internal communication more integral than ever. According to our recent COVID-19 survey, internal communication professionals are rallying around leaders right now, with 77% making their visibility to the rest of the organisation a priority.

But internal communications may not be top priority for senior leaders, with 42% of communicators struggling with the lack of advance notice of leadership decisions, and 35% believing their lack of involvement in decision making is holding them back from IC success. Is it a question of a lack of trust in internal communicators, or the pressure to react quickly to a situation that changes daily? Whatever the answer, internal communication can truly show its value-add by supporting leaders and employees through these trying times.

The silver lining is that the basic building blocks of effective internal communication still work: be proactive and don’t stay silent; listen to stakeholders and employees; and create opportunities for dialogue.

Here are some things to do to help make leadership communications during a crisis successful:

  1. Solidify trust through transparency and authenticity. Trust in leaders is never as essential as during a crisis, when employees need to be guided through a landmine of ambiguity and adjustment. It’s our job as internal communicators to help leaders craft messages aligned to a narrative that is both genuine and transparent, while also reassuring and unifying. It’s important that we reassure leaders not to be afraid to be vulnerable, visible, or to shy away from acknowledging uncertainty. Employees will appreciate their frankness, be better prepared in the event of a challenge, and feel more connected to their leader who has made plain that they’re only human.
  2. Communicate clearly and consistently. Don’t underestimate the value of simple, straight forward messages. Communications that complex or abstract in times of crisis are not always internationalised or understood. People also don’t always hear your message the first time, or the second time, so it’s important to reinforce messages through repetition.
  3. Communicate what people need, when they need it. People’s information needs change throughout a crisis. And so should the message being communicated. Crises are times when leaders’ priorities in terms of topics, whilst still important, really must be supplemented with messages which focus on employees’ needs and interests. At the initial stages of a crisis, provide facts and instructional information to provide clarity and help people remain calm. As the shock wears off and people start following instructions, focus on helping them adjust to their new reality with messages of empathy, motivation and looking to the future. As we come out of crisis, support employees by helping them making sense of what happened, what changes they may see as a result and a rallying cry to rebuild a sense of unity.
  4. Create dialogue. As important as it is to communicate out to the organisation, it is maybe even more important to listen to employees and support two-way conversation. Create opportunities for employees to share their fears and concerns, particularly when the crisis first breaks. Though it may be difficult to see initially, dialogue can slowly evolve into innovation as people have more time to pause, think and experiment with new ideas.

Crisis can, understandably, cause leaders and internal communicators alike to panic and react without much consideration – but taking a breath and going back to basics will help to ensure organisations come out the other side calmer, clearer and stronger.