5 tips for communicating with stakeholders during a crisis
Whether it be an operational mishap, a disruption to the supply chain, some employees accused of misconduct, a financial challenge provoked by a significant drop in demand for a company’s services, a coordinated cyberattack, or even a global pandemic; most organisations will experience some form of crisis during their lifetime. The ability to communicate meaningfully with internal and external stakeholders during such periods of uncertainty has become more important than ever.
Many organisations lurch from one crisis to another, with their leaders unable to act in ways that build trust and communicate leadership to its audiences. In most scenarios, crisis brings uncertainty, which breeds vulnerabilities in people, who most times, desire stability. When a crisis occurs, people want to trust their leaders. Crises have been seen by many experts as catalysts for leaders to reinvent themselves, pull their people with them, build long-term engagement, and enable them to emerge from their “crisis chrysalis” stronger than ever.
The most important tool that leaders can leverage during uncertainties is communication. When leaders communicate with clarity, urgency, transparency, and empathy, it helps people to adjust to the constantly changing conditions that crisis brings. Clarity tells the team what is at stake and prevents doubt and rumour. A tone of urgency encourages people to make quick decisions to mitigate harm and model desired behaviour. Transparency builds trust in leaders and conveys respect for employees by implicitly recognizing them as being capable of coping with what is being shared. Also, showing empathy and conveying a compelling message of hope will encourage resilience and inspire their stakeholders to face the challenges that lie ahead.
While crisis usually throws up fears of the unknown, leadership communication accentuates the known, keeps business operations moving with as little disruption as possible, and more importantly, enables the prioritization of staff safety.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has created great uncertainty in many workplaces, elevated stress and anxiety of internal and external stakeholders, and prompted tunnel vision, a syndrome that causes people to focus only on the present. The absence of information about how far the coronavirus will spread and when the pandemic will begin to ebb has triggered increased levels of fear and anxiety in people and is causing concerns about possible mental health challenges in adults and children. Public health actions, such as social distancing, which can make people feel isolated and lonely has further increased unease.
There is a demand for leaders that can provide calm and confident communication to their employees, partners, vendors, customers, and other stakeholders. With many organisations facing increased operational costs and a reduction in revenue, leadership is beginning to question how long organisations can continue to carry employees’ bills. Some organisations have furloughed some of their employees; others have slashed salaries and postponed new investments while all organisations are taking a scalpel to their costs, cutting out discretionary expenses. Organisations are performing long-needed hard-nosed assessments of their products and services; reassessing those with poor survival prospects and identifying opportunities amid the pandemic. As leaders nimbly adjust strategies, tactics, and product offerings in response to shifting demand and new directions impacting their stakeholders, they are expected to carry their audiences along on the new journey. Reassuring messages that reinforce an emotional connection with the brand and demonstrate empathy (for example, by conveying a sense that “we’re going to get through this together” are vital. Empathetic messages must also be backed up by actions that demonstrate that the company is committed primarily to stakeholder’s welfare.
5 Tips for Communicating with Stakeholders During a Crisis
During any crisis, unified and immediate information can help keep things calm in an otherwise chaotic situation. Here are five strategies that organisations can implement to collaborate with their stakeholders during any crisis that impacts the health and safety of stakeholders.
1. Create Open & Transparent two-way Communication
Organisations should display a mix of vulnerability and transparency about the situation and how it affects the company and the staff. This communication should be two-way, encouraging stakeholders to be frank about their challenges and how the situation is affecting them. Transparent communication taps into the mood of the times we are in and fosters a future-focused collaboration for how the entire organization can work together collaboratively, to remain resilient during the crisis. A Lagos Business School (LBS) insight advises leaders to avoid two extreme communication errors: being so pessimistic that employees do not see any future in the company, or being too optimistic that the difficult situation and its consequences are masked. The communication must state the facts and also be inspiring, so stakeholders see hope in the future of the organization.
2. Lead with Empathy
Companies and their representatives must lead with empathy. When an organisation and its stakeholders demonstrate empathy, they both understand that it is not business as usual, and all parties are accepting temporary inconveniences to ensure that the organization stays afloat for their future survival. But even within the crisis, the safety and wellbeing of its stakeholders remain the priority. Managing Partner at Verraki, an African business solutions company, Niyi Yusuf averred “As business leaders, we need to demonstrate empathy and courage, while we take deliberate, proactive steps. The main priority must be the safety and wellbeing of your workforce. Next is to find ways to connect with the workforce even during this difficult period to motivate them and give them a sense of belonging, and a sense of job security such that they have no doubts about their sustenance and thence can focus on contributing to the business.”
Empathetic leaders understand what their constituents might be facing during a crisis and try to be a resource for things they and their families might need outside of work. Some have provided their employees’ funds to cover costs resulting from having to work from home and set up relief funds to help those in need of additional support, especially people whose family members contracted COVID-19. A majority of organisations have provided healthcare supplies to their stakeholders including bottles of sanitisers, face masks, and access to wellness initiatives, such as online seminars and interactive courses on mental, physical, and financial health.
3. Build Trust Within and Without
Trust is the connective tissue that binds people together and forms the basis of all relationships and interactions, whether professional or personal. But it is something that must be built deliberately. London Business School’s Professor Alex Edmans, author of just-published book Grow The Pie, asserts that trust should be seen as a pie, which gets smaller as pieces are chopped away by examples such as companies avoiding tax payment, paying excessive bonuses or failing to be socially inclusive. On the other hand, trust can increase when leaders avoid furloughing staff by taking a pay cut, offer cash-flow relief to its supply chain or donate millions of hand sanitisers and soaps at a time like this. As resilient leaders seek to shepherd their organizations and stakeholders safely through the COVID-19 crisis, trust will be more critical than ever, as recovery without trust rests on shaky ground. They must approach stakeholders’ needs and concerns with competence and intent; doing things right and following through on commitments in an effective, meaningful, impactful way (competence) while taking decisive action from a place of genuine empathy and transparency (intent).
4. Encourage inclusiveness and collaboration
Organisations must nurture enabling and inclusive environments, especially during crisis periods. Leaders should realise that cooperation and competitiveness exist on a continuum and encourage internal stakeholders to play up the natural tendencies to cooperate, by rewarding performance management processes that nurture collaboration.
Leaders can also personally reach out to their employees, to find out how they are coping. While it may be impossible for a C-level crop of fewer than 20 executives to call its hundred thousand employees, a personalized email or townhall session periodically would suffice. Organisations can also institute formal mentoring or engagement programmes where employees are assigned mentors or buddies that will check up on them, to help foster a culture of inclusion and cooperation.
Several on-phone collaboration tools exist such as Whatsapp, Teams, and Slack Groups which provide dedicated crisis communication streams with up-to-the-minute information while ensuring collaboration with a dispersed workforce. These tips are inexhaustive, but when done effectively, send out a strong message that inclusiveness and collaboration are capabilities that are valued in the organization.
5. Implement relevant crises policies
Crises further exacerbate a VUCA landscape that is already filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Organisations must implement (if this exists already) or create relevant policies that guide stakeholder actions. These include crisis communications, business continuity, and disaster recovery plans among several others. From a communications standpoint, there must be a clear line-of-sight on who is responsible for communicating with stakeholders and what they say. A crisis communications task force with a standard checklist procedure will have emergency procedures and roles mapped out in advance so that when unexpected happens, the team is ready to manage the communications command centre for your organization.
Given the uncertainties around COVID-19 and how quickly and drastically the pandemic has changed people’s personal and work lives, people are looking to their leaders more than ever for guidance and support. As a leader what you say and how you convey it will play a significant part in determining how your organization performs during these difficult times and after. By maintaining focus on the organisation’s NorthStar, remaining flexible enough to be resilient during the crisis while engaging with its stakeholders, business leaders can keep their stakeholders inspired till business is back to (the new) normal.
Temitope Osunrinde is a senior marketing executive who works with organizations, businesses, people, and ideas focused on transforming Africa. As Marketing Head, he works with former Accenture Nigeria leadership to shape and build Verraki, a business solutions company based in Nigeria, as a transformational partner for Africa’s enterprises and governments.