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How to win at communication during a crisis

After droughts and bushfires gave way to the global COVID-19 pandemic, it would be fair to say many Australian businesses have been through six of the toughest opening months of a year in living memory.

However, while these series of events are unprecedented, it would be foolish not to look back on them and learn a thing or two, particularly about the best ways to communicate with your staff and stakeholders during a crisis.

Kelly McLuckie and Jenni Ross-Janett, NTI’s change and culture specialists, gave us some insights into the best way to keep your team informed when a crisis strikes.

Only suckers leave a vacuum

In a time of crisis, there is nothing less helpful than someone who doesn’t actually have all the details starting a whisper campaign that begins with, “I heard that …”

An absence of information creates a vacuum that someone will inevitably fill – usually with incorrect information. Which is why it’s so important you don’t simply clam up or hide out when trouble strikes but rather get on the front foot and be as open and honest as you possibly can.

As for what to do if you don’t have any new information? Tell your team. It may seem counter-intuitive but saying “nothing has changed” is far better than saying nothing.

“Some managers might have a problem admitting that they don't know everything when trouble strikes,” Jenni says.

“They also feel like, ‘what am I going to communicate if I've got nothing new to communicate?’ But that just leaves a vacuum and other people make up the narrative.”

While it may seem like you’re trying to fill the void with nothing, simply telling people that the situation has not changed, is being open and honest. This will in turn both build trust in you and take away the opportunity for an uninformed person to make things worse.

Get your information from trusted sources

Of course, when you do have new information to tell, you want to be sure that it’s correct.

If social media and the age of fake news has taught us nothing else, it’s that where you get your information from is so important – especially in a crisis. Which is why you want to plan well in advance as to who will be your trusted external advisors and what sources you’ll get your information from.

“You need to be cautious that you are getting your information from the right places as best you can – from the source or from a trusted advisor,” Kelli says.

Generally, you can rely on the likes of:

  • Your bank
  • Your accountant
  • Your business broker
  • Your membership associations or industry bodies

Obviously, this is only a short list of potentially worthwhile sources of information. You need to decide what information matters most, synthesise this info, make sense of it, then communicate it to your stakeholders.

This is not necessarily an easy task, so we recommend sticking to the KISS rule: Keep it simple, stupid!

The right channels matter

During the coronavirus, communicating face-to-face with daily meetings ceased to be a possibility for most businesses. Of course, as more and more people work from home or are employed on a freelance basis, that’s increasingly the situation for the workforce at large.

So that means business owners need to nail down how they’ll communicate – be it via phone, text, social media, video or face-to-face – to ensure information is accessible.

That means you’ll need to use more than one method of communication to keep everyone in the loop – because someone in their early 20s is likely to use different channels than someone in their 60s.

And if you’re going to contact a team member directly – such as by making a phone call – do it when it’s convenient for them, not when it’s convenient for you.

It’s a small thing, but having that bit of care to communicate at a time that suits them shows that you’re not just concerned with your own problems – and communication really matters. As Kelly reminds us, “If you as a business owner feel out of control, imagine how your staff feel.”

Final thoughts

Central to your communication is being as open and honest as possible – and, particularly in a crisis, that may mean you’ll need to deliver bad news.

“You will sit down with your staff and be transparent,” Jenni says. “You might have to say, ‘look, we have this issue where we’ll go to a four-day week’.”

The key throughout it all is being honest and consistent with your communication, addressing concerns and frequently sharing what you can.

Finally, ensure your communication is adaptive, reflecting what is sure to be an ever-changing environment – don’t hold onto fixed opinions and demands. Be straight, honest and candid. Empathy is the key: put yourself in your team’s shoes and talk to them the way you’d want your boss to talk to you. They’ll respect you for it, and just as important, you’ll be able to respect yourself.