Leadership Crisis Communications: It’s a Dialogue, Not a Monologue

How should leaders communicate in times of crisis? We often think of leadership in terms of control. It’s easy to see why—the leader is the one with the microphone. The one who is giving orders. The one telling us where to go, and how to get there. The leader is the one in control, standing on the mountain top. In this paradigm, the communication style is one-to-many. In theatrical terms, you might call it a monologue.

But what happens when control goes out the window? As the coronavirus has spread, it’s been a sobering reminder that, despite our best efforts, much of the virus’s impact is beyond our control. We’re confined to our homes. We’re forced to work remotely, if we can work at all. We’re watching the economy decline before our very eyes. If leadership is about control, how can anybody lead at a time like this?

Harvard Business Review once did a study where they talked with professional communicators and top leaders from 100 companies ranging in size and industries. As these leaders described their approach to communication, one word kept coming up again and again: conversation. The most effective leaders consistently sought to “have a conversation” with their people, or “advance the conversation” at their companies. The idea of conversation was so prevalent that HBR developed an entire model of leadership called “organizational conversation.” 

This idea of conversation may be at odds with how we often perceive leadership, which is in terms of control. But even when you can’t control the circumstances, you can still control the conversation—and foster a dialogue, rather than broadcast a monologue. Put another way: In difficult times especially, don’t communicate at people. Communicate with them. Here are a few tips to help you do so in the coming weeks and months.

Stick with the facts. 

This is not a time to fill your customers’ inboxes with empty rhetoric or feel-good fluff. Use your website, email list, blog, and other marketing channels to tell people what you’re actually doing to make things better. Has your CEO taken a pay cut? Did your company bootstrap new ways to bring your offerings online? Are you finding creative ways to help flatten the curve?

Dig deep until you find a tangible “what” to share with your audience. More than doing the right thing or the wrong thing, when disaster strikes, leaders do something—and consistently communicate to their constituents the actions they’re taking.

Share your why.

Leadership isn’t just about actions—it’s about values too. That’s why it’s always important to tell people not only what you’re doing, but also why you’re doing it.

If you run a restaurant, it’s one thing to tell people you’re closing your doors because you’re being shut down due to coronavirus. It’s another thing to tell people you’re closing your doors because you care about their well-being, and you want to do your part to protect public health as we ride out this curve—so we can all get back to enjoying a good meal together as soon as possible.

Express the human why, rather than the circumstantial why. That’s how you express values, and values are what make leaders, leaders. 

Send a message of hope. 

Great leaders never let their followers forget the promise of victory. You can hear the same message of hope echoing down the corridors of history: We will recover. We are strong. We’ll pull together. In times of trouble, we need those messages to persevere.

Sure, we can debate about when, or whether, the stimulus will have any effect. We can speculate about how the virus will impact the economy, or whether or not we’ll ever shake hands again. But don’t just focus on the problem. Focus on where we’re going. And as Winston Churchill did during World War II, assure your listeners that you won’t stop until you cross the finish line: 

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

How you communicate with people in times of crisis sets the tone for how you’ll be regarded when the dust clears. If you’d like help crafting pitch-perfect coronavirus crisis communications, get in touch with MarketSmiths today.

Paul Rosevear

Paul Rosevear

What do you get when you combine the soul of a musician with the mind of a writer? Copy that sings. And for the last decade, that’s precisely what Paul has delivered for global brands, bootstrap startups, and everything in between. When he’s not hard at work crafting top-notch communications, you can find Paul hanging with his wife and two young daughters, singing and playing guitar for The Vice Rags, or roaming the streets in search of the nearest slice of pizza.

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