How to Lead in a Time of Crisis: Authentic Communication Matters
Updated: Aug 21
Being a leader is not easy in a status quo, day-to-day environment. In a crisis, authentic, regular and consistent messaging becomes more important than ever.
We live in Houston, and by now you’ve heard about the major winter storm we had last month. For those of you reading this in other areas of the country or world, Texas does not do cold, especially Arctic cold. We. Do. Not. Do. Cold.
How it all began
At the beginning of the week when the storm hit, we endured 37 hours without power. As of the date we started brainstorming this content, we were going on day five without running water due to frozen and subsequently broken pipes in our area. When the power was finally restored, our home was a balmy 45 degrees indoors. While this seems horrible, there are millions throughout Texas that had to endure much worse conditions and even some who still not have returned to normal as they knew it. And all of this in a pandemic as well.
From our in-home tent-camp experience, we were reminded of several key components to effective crisis communications. We will try to provide a couple of things: 1) the “to dos,” as well as our experiences from the week that led to the easing of our concerns; 2) and frustrations of our situation.
Many of our government and local officials failed to communicate in a timely manner with information that could easily have alleviated some of our concerns and panic.
Hence the crisis.
Ineffective or incomplete communication can lead to misinformation, misinterpretation, misunderstanding, confusion, disengagement, under-performance, frustration, attrition and other unintended negative consequences.
Here are some tips to keep in mind for effective and successful information-sharing during uncertain times.
We were informed by local authorities the week prior to the storm to prepare for a snow event for two to three days. The Saturday before the storm, we went out and got everything we thought we’d need. We are generally well stocked with non-perishable canned goods and other foods as part of our hurricane preparedness kit. We picked up some compressed logs to burn in the fireplace and updated our batteries for flashlights and lanterns in the case we lost power. We are also avid campers and brought out some of the camping equipment we also thought we’d need, including a propane-run coffee maker and propane-run outdoor heater for grilling on the propane-run barbecue. Are you seeing a theme here?
Unfortunately, day two of the storm we lost power and water. Remember, power was out for 37 hours with outdoor temperatures in the teens and windchill in the single digits; and we didn't have water for five days.
People look to leaders for guidance and answers to questions such as “When will we have XX?”; “How will this affect YY?”; “What about AA?”
People are savvy and know when communications are not complete or genuine—they can tell when they are being fed a “line.”
Managing expectations takes priority over trying to positively spin whatever is going on, even if the news you have to share is negative. Set regular communication dates, tell them what you know and don’t know, share your next steps and actions. Be definitive and precise.
It’s ok to show your humanity; leaders are people too. In fact, being able to relate to your audience is a desirable attribute. Sharing anecdotes and personal stories with your audience makes them feel more comfortable—it demonstrates you know what they are going through (and you’re not just saying that). People feel less alone and isolated when they believe someone understands them.
Share what you know and what you don’t know
When our power went out, the only information we received was the energy grid was stressed, they had to reduce electricity use and there was no estimate of when our power would be restored.
Government officials were only sharing the number of people who were coming back online, not the number of people who were continuing to lose power or an estimation of when power would be restored to those who didn’t have it. Much more to the story has since come to light. Apparently had they not shut the power off to the masses when they did, the grid would have undergone a catastrophic shutdown that would have lasted month. They of course didn't share this with us as we shivering in the dark and cold of our own homes with three pets (in our case) with NO idea of anything.
Leaders need to lead. Silence generally fuels rumors, which are rarely accurate or helpful. Start the conversation by setting the scene. Share what led to the event and where we are, recognizing we’re navigating in uncertain territory and have a long way to go in this journey but “we’re in this together.”
It’s ok to be vulnerable. Know and acknowledge your limitations. It’s ok to say, “I don’t have the answer to that right now; I don’t know when that will be available, but I will find out as much as I can and get back with you.” Tell people the next steps you are taking, when they can expect to hear more and stick to a schedule.
Communicating a consistent message on a regular basis builds trust with your audience in a time when trust and honesty are key. Set a weekly or biweekly time to communicate, share that date with your audience and share developments during those times. Even if there are no new developments or the updates are negative, be honest with your audience about everything.
Disclaimer: We missed the mark a bit on the timeliness of publishing this blog, but we were among the millions of affected households needing to get back on our feet after power and water outages. We weren't affected nearly as badly as some and everything is back to normal and fine now.