Whether dealing with a controversy or an emergency, such as a global pandemic, the board bears the responsibility of leading their organisation through the crisis.
That will not be possible without a thoughtful communications strategy. Understanding the need for this prevents boards from communicating reflexively (“shooting from the hip”), and decreases the likelihood of superficial, inauthentic, and damaging responses that erode trust in the organisation.
Reputational risk is at play here. The organisation’s employees and the public will be gauging authenticity, care, and a demonstrated commitment to the organisation’s purpose and values.
It’s by no means an easy undertaking but the points below should help boards communicate effectively in the midst of a crisis.
1. Look ahead while the coast is clear.
Establish a Communications Plan
The need to oversee the establishment of a communications plan or strategy, ideally prior to a crisis, cannot be emphasised enough. Laying down a blueprint for crisis communications during less turbulent times provides the board and management with an opportunity to scan the horizon and analyse the needs of stakeholders more deliberately, without having to rush or implement temporary band-aid solutions in the future.
But if the board is already confronted with a crisis, drawing up a communications plan will still be helpful. Leaders need to take a purposeful pause and assess the current environment — so as to enable them to respond and communicate in a more thoughtful fashion.
Discuss it in a board meeting
Having said this, the communications strategy should occasionally find its place on the meeting agenda and undergo the same amount of oversight. Committees might need to convene and be involved in its review, since this concerns facilitating the flow of information among board members, and between the board and management, when in crisis.
In such cases, boards might want to consider the use of board management software, such as a board portal, to support information-sharing and collaborative efforts amongst directors (and/or with management) in a secure environment.
2. Supply the information your employees need, when they need it.
This McKinsey article states that every crisis has a lifecycle and behavioural needs vary with the stages of the cycle. Let’s take a look at what type of information the organisation requires for each phase.
At the onset of a crisis, employees need to hear “instructing” information. With the onset of the pandemic, for instance, employees relied on receiving information about changes and guidelines to time-off, overtime, remote work, and other operational tasks. Instructing information encourages calm and reinforces a sense of safety and security.
Adjust to Change
As employees acclimatise to the crisis, boards and management can pivot messaging from “instructing” to a focus on adjusting to change and uncertainty. An example of this would be a shift from information on health guidelines to that of business recovery.
As soon as the crisis’ end becomes more of a reality, boards and management should help people make sense of it. This could be in the form of silverlining anecdotes. But, as with all matters, ensure the timing is right.
3. Think C.A.T.E.
Apart from the timing and delivery of information, it is important for boards to communicate in a way that is clear, authentic, and transparent. Communication should convey empathy as well.
Remember that in a crisis, the attention of employees’ is finite; keep messages simple and to-the-point. Set clear guidelines, goals, and expectations. Also, always convey information by framing it positively. In other words, use “do’s” rather than “don’ts.” Negative framing diminishes trust.
Be authentic in your messaging. This requires an awareness and understanding with respect to the organisation’s limitations. It is important to be candid, especially when the board still needs to make sense of what’s going on. There’s no need to sugarcoat facts. As the McKinsey report states, “unfounded optimism can backfire.”
It is critical to share information proactively — in a frequent, timely, and digestible manner. Provide accurate information as to the impact of the crisis, how the organisation is handling it, and give clear guidelines on what employees should be doing. Transparency reduces uncertainty and builds trust in leaders even if some of their decisions turn out to be wrong.
Perhaps most important of all, a crisis is an opportunity for the board and its leaders to demonstrate that it is leading with humanity, as shared by the Institute of Public Relations (IPR). This entails adopting a “people-first” mindset. Show a genuine understanding of what employees are going through. This is instinctive for good leaders. Note that communicating with empathy enhances employee trust, lowers their anxiety, and drives employee commitment and acceptance to change.
A good example to highlight (also from IPR) is that of Microsoft’s CEO and board member, Satya Nadella, who wrote this message for the company’s employees:
There’s no doubt that the workflow of our jobs is changing fast, with many of you doing so much of your work remotely for the first time, some while also caring for children at home. I myself am learning, as I’m sharing a home office with my two teenage daughters…There is no playbook for this and having that deep empathy and understanding for each other’s situations is needed now more than ever.
4. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Another study cited by McKinsey showed that an audience needs to hear a health-risk-related message 9 to 21 times to maximise its perception of that risk. Other matters might not require that same amount of repetition, but repeating a message is one of the best ways for information to be internalised. Use methods such as rhyming, alliterations, and other similar creative tactics to allow your message to “stick.”
5. Show resilience.
Boards will need to confront a critical period where they will need to instil resilience in people and drive a message of optimism — so as to build momentum for the future. They will need to model to management what they ask from them. It is important to celebrate positive outcomes, and help all employees see the long-term future. Positivity is crucial, especially when asking so much more from employees. Being positive can motivate and reinvigorate your workforce and renew their sense of purpose. But equally important is to balance this optimism with vulnerability and authenticity.
A crisis reveals who we are, so the adage goes. Thoughtful, deliberative responses emanate from a communication strategy that understands the importance of communication principles, but more importantly, the significance of relationships — be it with internal or external stakeholders. Effective communication strategies, especially in times of immense disruption, can demonstrate not only the leadership and governance capabilities of the board but also cement beliefs around the priorities of the organisation — and uncover what it ultimately stands for.