23 Strategies for Crisis Communication

23 Strategies for Crisis Communication

By | April 13, 2020

23 Tips for Communicating Clarity and Calm through Uncertainty from the World-Class Executive Coaches of the AIIR Global Coaching Alliance

As the world continues to contend with the novel coronavirus, leaders are facing unprecedented uncertainty. Clear communication has never been more important.

Yet, even before the current crisis, communication is a competency with which most leaders struggle. Businesses with more than 100 employees spend an average of 17 hours per week clarifying previous communications. Poor communication costs the average large organization (more than 100,000 employees) $62.4 million per year in lost productivity.

The fact that so many people are working from their homes, many for the first time, only serves to compound the problem. If you’re struggling to communicate with your employees, you’re not alone. Our team of elite executive coaches has been busy helping leaders around the world communicate with their peers and employees. We compiled a list of their best practices and the major themes were:

1. Your Employees Need Clear and Concise Communication

2. Be Authentic and Avoiding Vagueness

3. Don’t Underestimate the Value of Presence and Understanding

Your Employees Need Clear and Concise Communication

Check-in With Your Employees

“Communicate clearly, effectively and regularly. Leaders should be transparent and straightforward. Check in regularly on employees and be intentional about it: How are they doing? How are they feeling? Do they need anything from you? When possible, connect through video communication: they can see you and this helps settle, calm, and comfort others. Encourage your team members to keep their status, time zones, and away messages updated. Reinforce the message that they need to take care of themselves and their families before work — as many are working from home.”

Ritu Rohatgi, AIIR | Raleigh, NC

Stay Calm and Consistent

“People have required the same things from their leaders throughout history – times of crisis just make the necessity for leadership more acute. It’s reflecting a sense of self, a sense of community, a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose. Leaders who can stay calm and consistent; who can focus on their people; who can simplify complexity and clarify the next steps; as well as provide a path forward will be most successful. Critical to the four “senses” are two more for the leader themselves – a sense of perspective and a sense of humor.”

Jamie Ramsden, AIIR | Princeton, NJ

Overwhelm is the New Normal

“Communicate with clarity and value-add. Overwhelm is the new normal. So communicate, but be aware of over-communicating.”

Maureen Rabotin, AIIR | Paris

Provide Clarity, Consistency, and Connection

“The formula for communication is quite simple: provide clarity, consistency, and connection. Crises do not change this, they just make the action more critical. The greatest pitfall for any leader or organization is to ‘ghost’ their people. To disappear when times get tough can undermine the best performers. Teams want to know their leaders are human, so please, just tell them so and let them know what you know.”

David Yudis, AIIR | Los Angeles

Don’t Invest too Much Time Talking About the Pandemic

“In my experience during these past few weeks, teams expect for their leaders to be clear about what to expect and how to continue to inspire the people that work with them. They can still elevate collaboration by generating productive conversations, especially now that they are talking from a distance. A touch of humor is well appreciated and try to talk about COVID-19 only when necessary. You shouldn’t invest too much time talking about the pandemic in general. COVID is unavoidable, but sometimes it becomes the center of the conversation. Clarity, certainty in uncertain times, as said, a touch of humor, support from the distance, and above all, stay human, connected, caring. This is the time for leaders to rise to the occasion.”

Alvaro Burgos, AIIR | New York

It’s Not How, It’s How Much

“I’m not sure there’s a “how” that’s universally appropriate for leaders to communicate, but for the best leaders, I see it as a “how much” … and it’s a LOT. Leaders erring on the side of over-communication with transparency, honesty, and bravery will see the results of the psychological safety (or actual safety) that they foster.”

Bob Kinnison, AIIR | Texas

Maintain Empathy

“Communication in times of crisis must be direct and timely, yet maintain empathy. And it is not simply empathy for how they are receiving the directness but rather empathy for how they may be challenged without it. In times of crisis, imaginations can run wild and without clear operating guidelines, context and expectation setting, team members can spin out.”

Dave Gloss, AIIR | Philadelphia

Be Authentic and Avoid Vagueness

Stay Authentic and Open to Experts

“Leaders must be authentic, timely, and open to experts. Their messages should reveal the reality of the current state and specific steps to move forward. They should avoid vague platitudes, generalities, and flowery jargon.”

David M. Ehrmann, AIIR | Boston

Psychological Distance is Harder than Social Distance

“Mark Murphy once said, “The biggest challenge in managing remote teams is not physical distance, it is the psychological distance people feel.” To combat that feeling, leaders need to communicate, ensuring that their messages are explicit rather than implicit and that their expectations are really clear.”

Ianna Raim, AIIR | Miami

Tell Employees What You Know, And What You Don’t

“Tell them what you know. Tell them what you don’t know. Tell them what you think. Always distinguish which is which. Confidence, even in a vacuum of wisdom or vision, can carry much weight, providing balanced hope and inspiration.”

J. Todd Ross, AIIR | Pennsylvania 

Build Trust and Cohesion

“High-performing teams are high in trust and team cohesiveness. While this crisis will bring forward lots of difficult feelings and stressors, it also represents an opportunity to BUILD trust and cohesion. Trust is strengthened when the leader communicates transparently, authentically, and with candor. Leaders also build trust and credibility by balancing communication that acknowledges the risks and difficult realities with optimism about the possibilities that exist in a crisis. Leaders can create stronger cohesion by creating communication forums where people have an opportunity to voice their current emotions in a safe space. At an appropriate time, they can shift the conversation to look at possibilities that might be available — for people individually, for the team, and for the broader organization.”

Ren Wiebe, AIIR | Toronto

Stay Steady

“Whether you are acknowledging people’s concerns, sharing decisions that have been made, or delivering news that is hard to hear, leaders need to be seen as trustworthy, steady, and able to provide direction in a crisis. People are looking to you to know what to do, what the priorities are, and as a model for how to handle the crisis and, perhaps the hardest part, find the resilience within so that through your steadiness, people trust you to lead them through difficult times.”

Lynn Ellen Queen, AIIR | Richmond

Don’t Let Transparency Undermine Stability

“It’s about striking a balance between being transparent and authentic, while also providing stability and leading with a steady hand. It’s important to express your concern, worry, and even sadness, as part of a complete message that also instills hope by sharing a clear path forward and articulating what you, and the organization, plan to do. Finally, this is a valuable opportunity to build team cohesion. Create space for rich dialogue by holding meetings about COVID-19, actively listening, and providing an inclusive, open environment.”

Brittany Joslyn, PhD AIIR | New Orleans

Actions Have to Match Words

“Teams expect two things from their leaders: (1) Understanding the team’s mental and emotional response to very real, disturbing events – assuring them that leadership cares and wants to support their teams (important: the leader’s actions MUST support that); and (2) Clearly establishing what adjustments need to be made to execute/conduct necessary business in these unusual circumstances.”

Dawn Cone, Ph.D, AIIR | Detroit


Don’t Underestimate the Value of Presence and Understanding

Be Present

“In times of crisis, your team needs your presence. What does that mean? One of my CEO clients recounted this story from when he was on a team: “A few years ago, I was a senior leader at a top-tier technology company. We had been hacked and it was already all over the news. We were working late into the night, and who should walk in? Our CEO. I remember he was wearing a casual sweater, and all he said was, ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’ Then he listened. He didn’t solve anything. He didn’t give us a roadmap or an inspirational talk. He simply gave us his presence.”

Marie-Jeanne Juilland, AIIR | San Francisco 

Lead with the Heart

“Leaders need to focus on leading with heart right now and reminding their employees of the purpose of their organizations. As everyone is experiencing fear and uncertainty, it is important to acknowledge how people are feeling with compassion, and provide clarity on what’s known and what’s unknown. Leaders also have to reset expectations and provide focus for their teams on what’s most important immediately. Encouraging an adaptive mindset — allowing leaders to embrace that they have to learn quickly, make mistakes and change course — is also critically important, given the number of unknowns leaders are managing.”

Allie Wilkinson, AIIR | Boston

Slow Down to Speed Up

“In times of crisis, it is critical for leaders to slow down so they can speed up. Connecting with the real humans and their experience to ensure that they are safe, they feel heard, and they are being responsible to their and their people’s needs is paramount. It can be tough for a leader who may feel like they need to speed up and scramble to get through the crisis. People can feel ungrounded and alone in the space of crisis. Helping them to connect with the normalcy of their experience is often tremendously valuable.”

David Andrews, AIIR | Washington D.C.

Be Human in Your Communication

“Open, transparent, and human type communication creates a sense of common purpose, collaboration, support, and approachability. Avoid trying to reassure the team it is all okay and resist the urge to overcommit to things which might not be possible. Try not to feel responsible for the solution of the crisis. Instead, feel responsible for actions to help get through it together.”

Natalie Schürmann, AIIR | Brussels

Show How Much You Care

“While communication is critical in the early days of this crisis, ongoing constant communication is vital as this new way of working and evolving threats to people’s health will continue for many months. Many leaders focus on logistics and processes, though one of the most impactful behaviors a leader can demonstrate is being human and really showing how much they care for how people are doing, how their families are doing, how they’re adjusting, and what they need to feel secure and eventually thrive in this time.”

Deb Becker, AIIR | Boston

Concentrate on Being Caring

“Leaders should concentrate on being caring, appreciative, concise and frank in their communication. Let your team know you are concerned for their well-being and for their loved ones. Make it clear you appreciate their efforts. Keep your comments and guidance concise. Practice grounded optimism while not over promising or offering false hope. And finally, repeat your key messages frequently to help the team focus.”

Jay Fehnel, AIIR | Chicago

Make it RAIN

During times of crisis, most individuals look to their leaders (be it employers, community, or social) for inspiration and guidance. Telling people that “everything will be ok” or “everything will work out” can be seen as dismissive and invalidating by some.

One way that I have worked with folks is by practicing radical compassion, referred to as RAIN, as taught by Tara Brach, PhD. The intervention is as follows:

  1. Recognize what is happening
  2. Allow life to be just as it is
  3. Investigate with a gentle, curious attention
  4. Nurture with loving presence

“I believe this is a good way for leaders to be compassionate, authentic, and vulnerable, if not human, with those around them. It’s a good way to communicate, avoid unnecessary pitfalls, and so forth.”

Justin Zamora, AIIR | Salt Lake City, UT

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