Crisis management: seven tips for communicating through challenging times
The coronavirus outbreak has made remote workers out of a vast majority of us. But just because we are physically isolated doesn’t mean we should be working in silos. Here are seven tips to help keep communications open in your organisation during this challenging time.
I remember my first tornado, sitting alone in a closet in my apartment in Florida feeling scared, alone and disconnected. All I wanted was a connection, something or someone to tell me what was going on, that I was not alone, and that everything was going to be OK.
The good news is that the tornado never came. The bad news is that since the internet, mobile phones and even cordless phones had not yet been invented (yes there was a world before these), I sat in that darn closet all night long, terrified and cut off from the world, worrying and wondering what was going on and when and how it would all end.
If there was ever a time to remove the cloak of secrecy around what you tell your employees, it is now.
I share this story because we’re all going through something just as (if not more) scary and unpredictable as a tornado with the coronavirus outbreak. The good news, however, is that we now have technology as a way to communicate with our workforce, helping them feel informed and connected during this time.
Technology cannot do it alone, however. If communication is to make our workforce feel informed and connected, then it needs to be done in a meaningful and effective way. So let me share with you seven tips on how you can do this in these challenging times.
1. Start with your objective – the ‘why’
Let’s start with your communication objectives, the ‘why’. I suggest that before jumping in to create your communication messages, you pause for a moment and map out your objectives. Ask yourself ‘why am I sending out this message?’, answering these two important questions:
- What do I want and need my employees to know?
- What do I want and need my employees to feel?
By answering these questions first, you’ll set your message up for success, ensuring it has the focus it requires to meet your objectives.
2. Be open, honest and transparent
The absolute starting point and the key to effective communication is to be open, honest and transparent. Without this, you create mistrust and disengagement, and you fuel fear and uncertainty. If there was ever a time to remove the cloak of secrecy around what you tell your employees, it is now. Hiding information, telling lies or half truths will only make a bad situation even worse than it is already.
So start and end with the truth, giving your employees enough information to feel in the know, bring them into your circle of trust and help you and them survive in these challenging times.
3. Keep your messages short
Once you’ve made your commitment to being open, honest and transparent, the key is to present the information and messages in the most effective way. The first tip has to do with the length of the messages because, let’s face it, even in good times our employees don’t have much of an attention span when it comes to reading our communications. In fact, I read an article that said that the average human attention span has reduced from 12 seconds to eight seconds over the years...ouch!
In these challenging times our attention span will be reduced even more, with additional distractions fighting for our attention. For that reason, it’s important to understand and respect this and communicate in a short and straightforward way.
Challenge yourself with every word and sentence. Ask yourself if they are really necessary, or if it will just lose the precious attention of your workforce. Focus on giving your employees exactly and entirely what they need.
4. Repeat key messages
Another communications challenge is retention. On average we forget 50% of the information in an hour, 70% in 24 hours and 90% in a week. This is called ‘the forgetting curve’.
One way to overcome these odds is to repeat your key messages, ensuring that some, if not all of them, will stick. Here are two tips to help with this:
- Use different formats to create interesting and lasting memories. For example, one time it could be a short bullet point message, another time a blog, then communicated through a story, and then again in a video.
- Create a coordinated approach when repeating your messages. Map out how and when messages will be sent, taking the time to analyse what works and what doesn’t, and adapting your approach so that messages work together and support you in achieving your objectives.
5. Create engaging messages
Another way to overcome the retention challenge is to make your communications engaging, creating interest so that your workforce will want to read it and will more easily retain it.
To bring this point to life, let me refer to a few things I’ve done in this article to try to get you to read it (you are still reading it, right?). The first was that I shared a story to pull you in, second was that I broke it up with short and simple tips/points, and then I added a bit of humour with some statistics and informal comments. You can decide what is engaging based on your workforce and your culture.
6. Communicate from the top
Let’s now move onto the ‘who’. Who should the communications come from? If there was ever a time we needed our CEO to step up when it comes to communications, it’s now. Your workforce needs to hear from the top, from your CEO. They need to hear directly from them how the business is performing (good and bad) and what the business is doing to support them.
If they don’t feel comfortable with this, now is the time to be a ‘rebel’, which is something I’ve written and talked about a lot in the past. By this I mean being brave and bold in order to help them understand that without their presence, the communication will not be effective. If communication is not effective, your people and your business will suffer.
7. Find ways to communicate in many directions
Last but not least, now is the time to drive and support communication in many directions. So far I’ve spoken about communicating to your workforce, and communicating upwards, but it’s just as important that you facilitate communication in these two other directions:
- Downwards: it’s so important to give your employees a voice, letting them be heard on an ongoing and continuous basis, and letting them know that the business continues to care about them. For this reason we need to be having a constant dialogue with our workforce, allowing them to share their thoughts and to ask their questions. Forget about annual employee engagement surveys, you should be formally and/or informally asking employees for their thoughts and providing ways for them to speak up, and for you to take action.
- Circular: it’s also important to have communication amongst your workforce, using this to keep your culture and community alive and your workforce engaged. Technology is great for setting up channels and communities where employees can easily and freely share tips, stories and even silly pictures to help everyone cope and remain positive and productive.
Let me end with a quote from author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, “good communication is just as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after”. Let’s make our communication so effective that our employees don’t need coffee to keep them alert, informed, connected, engaged and productive.
Interested in this topic? Read Crisis communications: how to reach your employees during the coronavirus outbreak.
Debra Corey is a much-admired, charismatic and highly respected figure in the Human Resources world, recently being named one of the top 101 global employee engagement influencers. She’s had a varied and exciting career over the last 20+ years, working for global companies such as Gap Inc., Honeywell, Merlin Entertainments and Reward Gateway to...