Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, business and management journals have been filled with articles about communication tactics during a crisis. What to say. When to say it. How to muster your team. The advice pours in from every quarter. At the risk of adding to such chatter, one idea may be worthy of special consideration.
The very idea of “management” is one of command and control in a top-down style of leadership. Decisions are made. Directions are given. Actions are taken. Messages are delivered. All of this is very authoritarian. We can see the result of such a top-down management style in the way people reacted to prolonged edicts about curtailed business, economic and social activities. While compliance occurred in the short term, resistance emerged in the long run. Part of the reason is the manner in which many government officials communicated. “I have decided.” “This ‘order’ takes effect immediately.” “These regulations are imposed …” While society may need some measure of direction from government officials during a pandemic such as this, the language of orders, regulations and imposition doesn’t foster good will or acceptance on behalf of private sector entities.
To be sure, corporate communicators rarely adopt such terms, but the way in which decisions are made and expressed nonetheless has a profound effect on perception. More than a few major corporations find themselves today striving to restore reputation due to statements poorly framed and expressed.
“Crisis Engagement” is a far more enlightened way to think about what we should be doing in circumstances such as this.
An Engagement strategy calls for dialogue, transparency, explanation and openness. Business leaders often speak of such characteristics or build them into a statement of corporate values, but living those values requires that we go well beyond simply posting them to the corporate web site.
Building a crisis strategy should never be a scenario-based exercise. All too often, the scenario we failed to anticipate is the one that arises. Likely there were very few, if any, COVID-19 communication plans on the shelf waiting for this specific set of circumstances.
Instead, a coherent and adaptable plan begins with a set of guiding principles that translate into actions suitable to a wide variety of contingencies. Here are some possibilities that are consistent with Engagement versus Management:
Principle one: be open and honest
Honesty maybe the best policy, but it doesn’t come easily to organizations ever mindful of liability. There can be risk in saying, “Here is what we now know and what we do not yet know.” But, our stakeholders, if not our attorneys, always will credit us for saying as much, especially when we go on to describe what we are doing to fill the information gaps.
At the same time, openness requires that we take the initiative to communicate quickly rather than risk the perception we are disengaged or, worse, paralyzed by confusion. Such outreach very early in a crisis does not require that we provide all the answers. It requires that we describe our process, our commitment, and our empathy for those most negatively affected. Adding how we intend to continually share updated information ensures that our stakeholders know we are not spouting platitudes, but demonstrating responsible management action.
Principle two: listen carefully
During the COVID-19 crisis, press briefings and public pronouncements and presentations sparked negative and, in some cases, even hostile reactions. The key to Engagement is to maintain a posture of respect and interest rather than responding to negativity in like manner. Letting the audience know that you care about their points of view and appreciate their willingness to share their thoughts, can significantly improve the potential for reasoned dialogue.
Tonality during a crisis is more important than ever. Words convey not only our message, but also the personality and character of our brand. In an increasingly global communication environment, we must additionally ensure that our ideas and meanings are culturally suitable and understandable, that our words express the same things in different languages, and our written and verbal outreach is done in a measured and disciplined fashion.
Principle three: speak clearly
People around the world have experienced a rapid education in medical terminology and systems as a result of the pandemic. One medical expert recently, in attempting to explain evidence of severe blood clotting in COVID-19 patients, went into a discussion of “antiphospholipid syndrome.” It turns out a layperson’s alternative wording could be “sticky blood.” Those words are much more easily understood and prompt curiosity as to what that is exactly.
Similarly, corporate communicators can dispense with the jargon of their industry and words commonly accepted in the board room, speaking instead with clarity that is neither condescending nor open to misinterpretation. Words that may seem commonplace such as “benchmarking,” “OEM’s” or even “supply chain” can be unfamiliar to those outside the corporate environment. The words “comparisons,” “parts producers” and “suppliers” can be far more accessible substitutes for a broader range of audiences.
Principle four: provide context
This health crisis brought about a wide array of restrictions that often differed from state to state. But residents of one state had equal access to the news of other states and could easily identify differences and inconsistencies. When a new rule appeared to make little sense or was radically opposite what an adjacent state mandated, the result was often confusion and, ultimately, dissension. Compare this to the original rationale for restrictions of any kind. Health authorities in Washington, D.C. discussed “Flattening the Curve.” They explained what they meant by that and why such an approach was vital. Generally speaking, people understood and complied. In the beginning, there was a broad, general consensus about the need to do nearly unheard of things, because people understood the reasoning behind those measures.
Corporations that take the time to put their decisions into context, sharing the rationale for their actions and providing a framework for continually reevaluating gain favor from consumers and the press even if their actions are not immediately popular. At least it’s understood such actions also aren’t capricious.
Crisis Engagement must become the new approach to navigating difficult waters. Corporations that continue to apply traditional “management” thinking and action will see their brands and reputations suffer as a result.