The definition of a crisis is a time of intense difficulty or trouble. Needless to say COVID-19 has plunged our families, colleagues and communities into an unprecedented situation in which confusion and uncertainty have elicited stress and anxiety. Our priorities must be to family, community, and country and each of us as leaders, whether we are conscious of it or not, are key contributors to holding together the social fabric that will pull us through. If we accept the challenge then the crisis will pass. If we don’t, it will linger.
Family comes first and it is this crisis that needs to be addressed deliberately and expeditiously by family leaders. I am not a family therapist as my communications expertise resides in the corporate world, but the guidance I have received from experts has been to be as transparent as possible and reassure your loved ones to the extent possible without creating expectations or promises that are impossible to keep. In other words, manage expectations.
While every business leader is confronted with varied challenges, obligations and audiences, the foundations of corporate crisis communications is consistent with the best practices of parents, politicians and the clergy: Transparent, Authoritative, Consistent, Over-Communicative, Social (TACOS).
The TACOS method has been our guiding principle for more than 25 years of navigating our clients through varied crises including business disruption, HR issues, natural disasters, alleged criminal activities, economic crises, product delays, and executive transitions. Obviously, we, nor anyone, have had to formulate a crisis plan specific to COVID-19 but we are confident that the TACOS method provides a steady course of action to confront these times.
Why TACOS? For starters, who doesn’t love a Taco! More importantly, it is memorable and incorporates the 5 pillars of crisis management.
The word sends chills down the spine of a business owner since most people interpret it as an imperative to disclose every detail and minutiae of the organization. That is not, however, where the value of transparency resides. In communication, whether internal or external, decisions must be made about the sensitivities of what can be disclosed and then how it should be disclosed. The variables as to what can be disclosed might be legal, political, or regulatory. At times, these considerations will override the need for transparency.
Be mindful, though, of what is impossible to communicate versus what is uncomfortable to communicate. Your primary goal is to resolve your audience’s confusion, anxiety, and misinformation. Dependents anxiously await guidance so make sure that you provide it expeditiously, consistently, carefully, honestly and with as much transparency as possible.
As a communications expert, now is not the time to hedge and equivocate. Give advice and provide it with your authoritative voice! It goes without saying that you should never provide guidance on a matter in which you are not an expert, but for topics and issues in which you have real-world experience and insight, it is important to find a voice that is reassuring, confident and authoritative.
Authority begins to dwindle when advice is inconsistent. Sure, variables can change and guidance must reflect that reality. However, inconsistent messaging to employees, customers, and colleagues belie a sense of uncertainty and self-doubt.
Thoughtfulness is highly valued amidst a crisis which means that snap answers aren’t expected. If an issue demands some thinking and a degree of nuance then that is fine, as long as it is not interpreted as indecision or a hedge. Every leader’s character, mettle, and integrity is under scrutiny in a time of crisis. Passing that test and inspiring confidence and trust involves all of the crisis communications pillars but consistency might be the most critical.
Human nature is to bury your head in the sand during a crisis and to hope against hope that it will pass like a summertime thunderstorm. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case and a leader needs to fight the urge to batten down the hatches and wait until the water is calm.
Our dependents and audiences await our authoritative and steadying voice. They crave communication from leaders and the longer they have to wait, the more they will experience anxiety. Your business depends on your employees’ morale and focus. Anxiety erodes both. As a leader of a business or family, you are the sole voice that can inspire positive thinking and mollify anxiety.
As such, you must over-communicate. Depending on the crisis, the appropriate cadence for communication can be hourly, daily, biweekly or weekly. Try to be optimistic, soothing, empathetic and practical. While there may be certain mantras that are worth repeating, it is important to sprinkle in something new or accretive to what has been said in previous communications.
Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) are examples of leaders that became iconic precisely because they used words and communication that were inspirational and empathetic. Without firing a shot, Churchill, from his London bunker, inspired his nation to fight and persevere in the name of freedom and morality. Over the radio, FDR reassured millions sitting in front of a fireplace, that the Great Depression was temporary and it was only “fear itself,” preventing a recovery. As leaders, these are the examples we must follow.
A leader needs to disseminate information on the platforms where people can find and digest it. FDR and Churchill used the radio and print media to great effect. Today, the platform of choice for external communications is social media, while video conferencing, email or Slack are used for internal communications.
COVID-19 has forced the bulk of employees and customers to work from home. While email and social media platforms are good for mass communications as well as providing print and broadcast media with important updates (this is not just in times of crisis; the best way to reach traditional media platforms for mass communications of import is through social media posts and updates), videoconferencing is critical for creating a personal touch. We are hardwired to be social animals and research shows that people, especially in times of crisis, appreciate any sort of personal interaction, even virtual.
Be mindful of the drawbacks of the written word and all communications. People can at times hear what they want to hear, read what they want to read, and spin positivity into negativity. As such, make sure to message carefully and solicit feedback and advice from diverse stakeholders with an eye towards the potential for misunderstanding and misinformation. Inevitably, especially with COVID-19 where there is more uncertainty than in most crisis situations, questions and concerns will emerge so be prepared to address them carefully and expeditiously.
This too shall pass
Like all crisis situations, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Encourage your audiences to control what they can control and accept that there are things that they cannot control. Our job is both a moral and business imperative that demands us to be present with empathy and encouragement. We are in unprecedented times and we will get through this together but family, community and business leaders have an especially weighty responsibility to steward our dependents through these turbulent waters.