When bad things happen, how you communicate can make the difference between a solid recovery and a sinking failure.
Most managers will have to lead employees through a crisis – from layoffs and critical errors to workplace tragedies and natural disasters.
The hope is that yours will always be on the low end of a crisis scale.
Prepared when bad things happen?
But many leaders don’t know how they’ll communicate and navigate through a crisis. Less than half of U.S. businesses say they are adequately prepared to communicate during a crisis, according to Capterra’s 2023 Crisis Communications Survey.
And while it may not seem relevant to have a crisis communication plan in place, here’s proof it actually works: 98% of business leaders who’ve used their crisis communications plan say it was effective in getting them through the situation. More than 75% say it was very effective.
So regardless of the size of your crisis — from a cyberattack to a flooded storage room — leaders want to know how to carry employees through it.
Here’s expert advice from leaders who’ve navigated some of the most severe crises:
1. Tell the truth … fast
“The temptation to withhold bad news, soften the blow or wait for more information is always tempting,” say Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson, authors of Navigating an Organizational Crisis. “Naming the truth, pronto, is the crucial first step toward recovery.”
Tell people quickly what you know, how you’ll learn more and when you’ll update them.
2. Be the chief storyteller
Once people know the truth, they want to make sense of it.
You have to make the connection between “what’s just happened” to “what do we do with what’s just happened.” Lay the foundation – perhaps with your company or group mission – and paint a brief picture of what the future will look like. Perhaps it’s chaos for a short time, but explain how things will go back to normal or become better.
Example: Emotions ran high in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Yusufi Vali, executive director of the Islamic Center of Boston, was asked to publicly react for his community, which was both scrutinized and sympathized. He explained their foundation and their future: “We are Bostonians first and we speak from that perspective … We are pioneering what a mosque space in America can and should look like.”
3. Add yourself to the story
Leaders want employees to see that they’re participants in the difficult situation, feeling the same emotions and having the same struggles.
For instance, when President George W. Bush stood at Ground Zero after 9/11, someone yelled that the crowd couldn’t hear him. He responded louder, “I can hear you, and the rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
Not you. Not me. Us. President Bush had made himself part of their story.
The key: Express emotions you truly feel. Avoid extremes – despondency, rage, superficial optimism, etc.
4. Listen to the listeners
Storytelling in a crisis is two-way communication. You can paint the picture and give employees hope, but they won’t be assuaged until their concerns – spoken in their words – are heard and addressed. Then, they’ll be more prepared to buy-in to the recovery and take action.
Virgin Founder Richard Branson says, “Listen more than you talk. Nobody learned anything by hearing themselves speak. Wherever I go, I try to spend as much time as possible listening to the people I meet.”
That’s most true in a crisis.
5. Slow down
While overcoming a major obstacle is imperative to leaders and their teams, it’s not something that can be rushed.
In crisis, people need to go through a natural process of healing. They need to live their part of the story.
Leaders can push them through the necessary tasks and motions to move on. But give them time to absorb and accept what’s happened – and create their own stories of success through it.