Four Crucial Things to Know About Communicating in a Crisis
For twenty months I’ve watched a large nonprofit handle pandemic response. Here’s what I’ve learned
Days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, my boss called me and asked if I would be willing to serve on the core crisis management team tasked with coordinating cross-departmental collaboration and organization-wide communication related to our company’s pandemic response. I agreed and on March 19, 2020 I called into the Zoom line for what was to be the first of countless team meetings.
In the months that followed I learned innumerable lessons on leadership. I had a front row seat to watch remarkable leaders at HOPE International as we all climbed the steep learning curve that was – and is – navigating unprecedented times. Chief among these lessons were those about communication and how crisis communication in particular is (a) not the same as communication in regular seasons and (b) is often counterintuitive.
But beyond the events of the last 20 months, I want to broaden the scope of application beyond what one might assume only applies in times of physical, social, or public health catastrophe. These principles can be helpful in all times where there is uncertainty or lack of safety (physical or psychological). They can be helpful any time in which people are turning inwards, afraid, or finding it difficult to cope with day-to-day life. Is that not true for many of us most of the time in this fallen world?
Support the work of HDI in the world. Your gift will enable researchers and students navigate humanity’s most complex and catastrophic challenges.
Lean into uncertainty.
The first, and most unexpected, principle of crisis communication, is to lean into uncertainty. In their paper on crisis communication, Dr. Peter Sandman and Dr. Jody Lanard recommended that leaders proclaim uncertainty. While we are often taught not to dwell on what we don’t know, seeing it as a weakness, times of crisis are so replete with unknowns as to make them almost unavoidable, and we would do well to own that fact.
Making unwarranted claims of certainty into an uncertain reality is, at best, false confidence and, at worst, dangerously misleading. It may seem like you are providing short-term comfort to people, but if what you communicate turns out to be false, then you’ve eroded trust and may have lost the very audience you most need to reach. Others may label you as overly cautious, but the sustained trust you’ll earn over time by owning your own uncertainty is worth every naysayer.
Be honest and emotionally present in the tough decisions.
The second principle of crisis communication comes straight from the pages of relationship counselling: be honest and emotionally present in the tough decisions. Crises present leaders with horrible dilemmas that ask them to choose between multiple bad options. We can all relate to disagreeing with a decision made by someone in leadership at one point in our lives (very likely in the last year) and feeling strong feelings about it.
Be honest with those you lead about the dilemma you are facing, why you chose the direction you did, and (honestly) how it makes you feel. This won’t guarantee that everyone will agree with you, but it will show them that you are wrestling with the situation just as much as they are. Polarization thrives when human decisions are framed as all good or all bad. Reality is rarely that simple and comes with all sorts of complex emotions—share them.
Take a posture of care.
The third principle of crisis communication is simply to take a posture of care. Leaders always have an immense impact on the well-being of those within their influence, never more so than during a crisis when people are anxious and not at their best. Starting communication with care – asking first about life outside of work or church, sharing new policies that allow for margin and flexibility, or providing an update on how you are doing – reminds those around you that you know they are people and that they are going through a hard time. It may seem that this should be obvious, but especially in times of crisis we could all use a reminder of the things that are most important.
Communicate consistently and often.
The fourth and final principle of crisis communication is not about what or how to communicate, but when. As mentioned above, times of crisis are full of unknowns and there may not be new information to share very often. Nonetheless, it is important to communicate consistently and often, even if all you have to share is that there is no new thing to share.
We have found at HOPE that, even when it lacks any new or updated information, demand continues for biweekly updates with a summary of the situation in every country in which we operate. The frequency of the communication communicates something on its own – that we continue to monitor what’s going on and are there to help if needed.
Lean into uncertainty. Be honest and emotionally present in the face of tough decisions. Take a posture of care. Communicate consistently and often. Over the last 20 months, I have seen and experienced how these principles can help leaders craft communication that is at once clear, candid, and caring. I have seen and experienced these principles help in times of crisis, but I believe that they can be helpful beyond crisis as well and I hope that you find this to be true too.
Claire (Stewart) Brosius is a writer, strategist, climber, and avid Star Wars fan. She currently serves as the senior manager of strategic initiatives at HOPE International, where she leads strategy design and management. Claire holds a B.A. in philosophy from Wheaton College (IL). She lives in Columbus, OH.