From the Comms Cupboard

The value of communications in a crisis

The value of communications in a crisis
Do we rely too much on leaders to guide us through a crisis, or can we all use the power of communication?

Many of us have the common sense to make our own decisions, but we blame managers for what transpires. What can good communication do to help others get through crises?

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Episode transcript

Shaun: What do you think about being out and about in the fresh air in the lovely, great British countryside during lockdown?

John: I'm surprised by how easy it is to podcast in the outdoors – with the wind, with the rain and the mud, with the children screaming and wanting to go back to school.

Shaun: Well actually it sounds so beautiful. It's probably because it's fake! 😄 It's a lovely soundtrack. I thought I would get us out of the Italian café for a little bit and have this beautiful countryside soundtrack, even though we are still actually in a cupboard.

John: We're still trapped in a cupboard.

Shaun: And have been for some time. Bring us food! 🥯

John: Looking wistfully outside.

Shaun: So, today we’re going to talk about things such as a lockdown and other crises. How to handle a crisis. How do communications departments handle a crisis? Crises! (I've got to get used to saying that.)

John: You see a lot of communicators these days looking rather grey.

Shaun: What do you mean: ashen-faced?

John: Ashen-faced and grey-haired. What do they say about football managers and prime ministers?

Shaun: They get very old very quickly. Though football managers are paid rather more than prime ministers.

John: Think of the book tour 📚

Shaun: We're on that as well, because part of dealing with a crisis is leadership. Do we over-rely on leaders to get us out of crises? It should be everyone's responsibility.

John: There is a lot of pressure on people in senior posts to be the ones who do it – to drag you out of it, to get you moving forward – but it's got to be everybody, hasn't it? It has got to be everybody. The last few weeks we've been talking a lot about mental health, and we did last week as well. It must be very difficult to be in a position of authority and leading an organisation at a time like this, to keep positive and keep driving people forward. You need everyone to be at that space.

Shaun: But we do have that dependency – I call it dependency – and it happened last year as well during the lockdown, with people constantly needing to be told to do something or not do something instead of relying on their own common sense. I think that's also in businesses, where people look to leaders to say what they should or shouldn't be doing instead of saying, here's what we should or shouldn't be doing.

John: And also should or shouldn't say, all the time.

Shaun: Yeah!

John: People want that detail of everything they should possibly say about everything.

Shaun: I know! Instead of thinking for themselves.

John: If you're a manager, a line manager or a manager of a big team, it's part of your job to be a good communicator and to understand what you need to say and search out for it as well. It can't just be about letting somebody else do it all the time. I think the same happens in a crisis. Who do you look to in a crisis?

Shaun: You look to the natural leader. But say you are a part of the thing that's going to get you out of the crisis ... And the crisis could be anything; not necessarily a pandemic. It could be massive redundancies because the business hasn't done well and is closing in a fortnight. That's a crisis, right? Or someone in the office has passed away. That's a crisis. You can't just look to the leader or your managers for that. I think it's part of a plan ... what do they call it … what's that word? Contingency. You plan for the event that something might happen and you don't know what it's going to be. Are comms teams good at having contingency plans or is that something that's not quite talked about these days?

John: I think they do have contingency plans. I think they understand what they need to do in a crisis. I think you’d see that crisis plans are quite a big part of a professional communications team.

Shaun: I’d hope so!

John: Absolutely. Let’s take one of the examples you talked about: redundancy. There's a lot of focus in a redundancy if it's mass scale. If it's hundreds of people, one leader can't do that all on their own. Plus, I don't know about you but if I was being made redundant, I would much rather hear from my own manager than someone I've never met who sits in an office somewhere else hundreds of miles away. Or thousands of miles away perhaps, if it's a global organisation.

Shaun: Oh you mean that George Clooney thing we did last season ...

John: Oh yeah ☺️

Shaun: ... Up in the Air, where his job was to go around telling people you've lost your job. Here's the plan. It's awful!

John: Here’s the package to take you away. That's the opposite of what you would want.

Shaun: You definitely want to hear from the person closest to you, but often that manager doesn't want to do it because they're too close to you.

John: So, is the role of the communicator to help those people to have those conversations? Because it's hard. It's hard for everybody, so what's the best way to help them to do that? And to help them with what they should be saying. In a crisis, there's going to be natural things they want to say, but if it's something like a redundancy there's going to be things they legally need to say as well.

Shaun: And be very, very clear and transparent about what those things are and how the plan is going to work.

John: Yes. Because you've got to think of that person first. It's that person that this is happening to – it's not you. It could also be happening to you! But they are a person, so of course they are going to be upset and worried so you need to be really truthful. That open and transparent thing we talk about a lot is the big and important thing, so be fair to that person rather than think about yourself ... as much as possible.

Shaun: What about generic crises that are not so individual but affect everybody? Let me think of an example. What about the rent is up on our office and we're having to clear out and go somewhere else! You know, that sort of global ... we've got two months left in our building. We're talking about having a well-maintained intranet now, to get consistent messages out all the time. Or not? Good communication – it's not necessarily a crisis but it's something big happening to the business ...

John: Say you're moving office, some people will be really happy about it while others will be unhappy. Any change is tough.

Shaun: It could be an individual crisis because it means they're not next door to where they live now – they're going to be 20 miles away!

John: Exactly 😄 There's all that to work around. Some people in organisations have been there forever. They are used to going somewhere, they're comfortable, they have their routines for years and years, and that's changing. You've got to have a lot of empathy for people when you're leaving. It's not as simple as: “This office is broken. The new one is better. Let's go.”

Shaun: It's not realistic to talk to each of those people individually sometimes.

John: No it's not, but you may have to.

Shaun: But what tools do you need for when you can't? Say it's a big organisation and some people are actually abroad – you have to rely on your newsletters, your email correspondence, your intranet. Don't you?

John: Yeah, you do.

Shaun: Your podcasts.

John: Yeah absolutely. It's like everything we've ever talked about. You have different channels for different audiences, and you're going to have to have multiple ones to reach all the people you need to. Have lots of different ways of getting through to people. They're going to be people who like a poster. That's where they're going to see it, in a café or something. They're going to read the poster and not read the email they got along with the other 3000 they got that day!

Shaun: Some people are only ever in the café! 😋 They're not doing very much work at all, and that's the only thing they're going to see!

John: Exactly! They may respond to something visual. I know that’s something you like as well. Or audio, in this case. A podcast. They might just want to listen to it or watch that video, or whatever it is. You would have to have a lots of different ways of getting a message through.

Shaun: And be consistent across those channels with that message, so it's not different on every channel. I guess that could be tough. You have an intranet manager, and the comms person who is in touch with the intranet manager: “Here's the message that needs to go on the intranet this afternoon.” Then perhaps it doesn't match the poster you've put out – it has a different message. There's a lot of things to get right and to get consistent from the get-go.

John: Yes absolutely. It should all be joined up. You should have a plan.

Shaun: Yeah have a plan! A plan is always a good thing.


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