Becky Falkingham: Communication in a crisis

Communicate, communicate, communicate…


Recall any crisis from the last few decades and there is often one common denominator running throughout – the communications. Whether well or poorly executed, clear or confused, comms can define a crisis response and make or kill reputations in the process. And in an age when messages are delivered to millions in seconds, you might argue nothing is more important, aside from fixing the crisis of course. Often poor communications define a crisis response more than the crisis itself, recalling past incidents involving BP, VW, Oxfam, and Cambridge Analytica.

In this current crisis, some governments are being praised for their clear communications, for taking the population “with them”, for establishing degrees of trust to explain that operationally – the situation, the testing, and the isolation were all under control. Let’s not debate the UK government comms machine at length but, suffice to say, the jury is still out. It was only when the public grumbled about the need for more information, that daily briefings became the norm.

Perhaps the lessons so far are quite simple:

Tone to take

  • Communicate regularly, honestly, and transparently.
  • Show that, as human beings, your business is putting its workforce, their families and the immediate communities it works in, first.

Questions to ask

  • If business has ground to a halt, as is likely for many, what contingencies are in place to manage medium term exposure to a shutdown that may last months?
  • How can employees work more effectively from home?
  • How can materials and communications flow effectively as the world embraces virtual (out of) office status?
  • What support can management provide for those infected, in isolation or quarantined? What is the best message of assurance to the existing workforce – that for now the balance sheet can hopefully withstand the strain or that bail outs loom close?
  • What’s the latest information available regarding worker stimulus and pay-outs?

The way forward for CEOs

In the context of pure survival of course, this crisis is different from many others as most businesses will have the relative sympathies of the public – rather than rotting in the court of public opinion following a scandal. But when the threat is existential, like the coronavirus pandemic, there is a way forward for CEOs. Be open, honest and tell customers and stakeholders what is happening, in real time if possible and, if things go wrong, as is likely, say you are doing your best to put things right. Continue to be visible and show that, however frazzled, you are still driving forward, and searching for solutions. That’s far more reassuring than ducking out.

At Alexander we are here for our clients to listen, support, advise and guide whenever they need us. But we do know that, as leaders, our clients will learn and grow from this grim exposure and have every opportunity to emerge with reputations intact, stronger and more resilient.