5 Crisis Communication Tips for Executives

The measure of a good leader is not what they do when times are easy. The real test of effective leadership is how successfully it brings your people through stressful and uncertain times, turning moments of crisis into opportunities for growth.

As the pandemic made abundantly clear, no business or organization can be prepared for every earth-shattering possibility. How a business or organization responds to a crisis is critical, though— starting with effective communication from the top. And, whereas preparing for any and every emergency is not possible, understanding the psychology of crisis communication—andhow to lead and engage employees through rough waters—is. These tips may help.

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The Psychology of Crisis Communication

First, understand the general psychology of being in a crisis and what it feels like. These moments can be stressful because of the uncertainty involved. That, in turn, can create a lot of fear, anxiety, and confusion.

Second, there may be feelings of sadness, loss, and grief. The hurt can masquerade as anger.When not given an opportunity for healthy processing, these emotions can lead to depression that needs treatment.

To understand the “psychology” of someone in crisis is to be mindful that they may be experiencing any or even all these emotions at any given time.

What Employees Need Most in a Crisis – Reassurance and Meaning

What employees need most in crisis is not that different from what children in crisis need, according to associate professor of organizational behavior Gianpiero Petriglieri, in an April 2020 article in Harvard Business Review. What do children need? They need to be “held,” Dr.Petriglieri said—and not just in a physical sense.

Dr. Petriglieri defined “holding” as when a person, “typically an authority figure,” “contains and interprets what’s happening in moments of uncertainty.” (To “contain” is to soothe feelings of fear and anxiety. To “interpret” is to help others “make sense of a confusing predicament.”)

In other words, effective crisis communication meets employees where they are with what they need most; and what they need most is comfort, reassurance, and meaning. One example of how leaders can communicate this meaning is by encouraging their employees to “hold” each other, by pitching in and providing mutual support and encouragement to colleagues. Another example might be to talk openly and invest in employee mental health.

Other Key Strategies

Some other key communication strategies to implement in times of crisis:

  • Respond immediately. Now is not the time for waiting to respond until you have all the details. A prompt response that acknowledges the limits of what you know and emphasizes that you are monitoring the situation and taking appropriate action reinforces the impression that you have the situation under control.
  • Be “responsibly transparent.” The term “responsibly transparent” is one that Dr. Debra Davenport, Ph.D., at Purdue University, coined. She pointed to companies that did the opposite—engaging in lies, cover-up, and scheming—as examples of why it is so important to be truthful and upfront with information and take responsibility. Being truthful and upfront may also require countering rumors or misconceptions.
  • Be clear and direct in your messaging. Messaging that is easy to understand is more reassuring. Longwinded explanations that are hard to decode can have the reverse effect of amplifying anxiety. They can even imply that a leader is confused and in over their head. Keep communication plain and accessible.

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