Communicating through crisis and uncertainty

Man on laptop - artistic shop
Sheena Ireland
Tue 24 Mar

In a time of unprecedented uncertainty, with change occurring daily and every one of us feeling the impacts of COVID-19, it’s no wonder mixed messaging and fear are taking centre stage.

Similar to the bushfire crisis, this current global pandemic is dynamic and changing rapidly. Sadly, these time constraints mean that many are placed in a position where policy and decisions are made on the run. While not ideal, it’s not all bad as long as you have clear and considered communication steps in place.

We, as humans, are extremely resilient and resourceful, but yet we can also behave erratically or out of character when we are challenged to this degree.

Without a single source of truth and without coordinated communications, so many of us are struggling to get a grasp on exactly what is happening.

In today’s digital world, it seems the speed of information flow has taken priority over consistency and clarity. We need to stop and take at least one breath for the sake of our sanity and welfare along with clear messaging to our key stakeholders.

If you are charged with communicating to your staff, customers, community and/or others during this time, here are some steps that might help you communicate with clarity and confidence, to support people in their time of need.

The crisis communication article I wrote in January when we were faced with the uncertainty and devastation of the bushfires provides tips on communication that we can all take a moment to consider.

Adding to this, I want to emphasise the importance of setting expectations to help deliver clear and trusted communication.

Tell people where your single source of truth is and how often you plan to update your advice. Then stick to this, even if your update is simply ‘we continue to monitor the situation to provide you clear and helpful information’.

It’s also important to remember to update your stakeholders of anything that impacts them. It’s upsetting for staff, suppliers and other key stakeholders to hear information that you have released through the media or other public communications’ platforms, before you have given them the heads up. The key is communicating with compassion. If it affects people, tell them first. By doing this, you bring them on board to help you communicate positively; if you don’t you can damage relationships and your reputation. Before you react, be sure to think about who your decisions impact—knowing your audience is vital.

For a short reference guide to communicating in a crisis and uncertain times try following these simple steps and together, we can get through this.

  • Breathe
    • Then ask yourself who needs to know this information, including who might need to know first
  • Breathe
    • Then plan and write your communication considering what your audience needs to know—if you have time and capacity, get another set of eyes to look over your work, in times of heightened crisis sometimes we need another objective view
  • Breathe
    • Then distribute your communication through a single source, if possible, and maintain communication through that source—the more people you have publicly speaking from your organisation the more likely it is that messages will become confused and/or inconsistent
  • Breathe
    • Then set expectations and stick to them
  • Breathe
    • Admit when you don’t have all the information and commit to finding out and coming back to your audience
  • Breathe
    • And be present in what you are doing
  • Breathe
    • And get rest and sleep so you can be in the best position to make informed and good decisions
  • Breathe
    • And refer to your team of advisers—don’t go it alone

With clear communication and compassion, we can all work through this together.