Candid Crisis Response
This is more timely post than many I write. Communities are facing a pandemic and, in some cases, struggling to find accurate and current information.
In my experience there are three main things that can stymie an organization's crisis communication. First, we often take the loudest person in the room at their word that they know what they are talking about. When a strong personality is at the helm, it is incredibly difficult to countermand them and, if they are not the right voice they can derail our response. Second, in wide reaching and shifting situations, such as in a public health crisis, there is rarely a single person or group of people who have the answers and communities can receive harmful mixed messages. And third, sometimes there aren't answers.
How do we deal with these very human challenges in a situation when we have the public looking to us for answers? Here are a few things I have learned in my career.
Issue 1, the person at the top of the communications operation is considering or implementing a strategy you believe to be unhelpful at best and harmful at worst.
My father used to tell me that the minute you think you are the smartest person in the room, you definitely aren't. Listening to those with other opinions or perspectives is not weakness, it is a critical component of leadership. Before you seek to take someone else down a peg for being a blowhard, first you have to assess if you are listening. Is the issue with that person that they are being myopic and shutting out dissenting voices? Or, is the issue that they are not adopting your vision?
If you've honestly determined that it is the first, and you have a comfortable relationship with that individual or leadership team, come up with thoughtful questions to help gauge their thought process. Have conversations. Slow down the process a bit if you can. It is in the best interest of your leadership to have you on board. If necessary, loop in a few allies to have that conversation. Be prepared to sacrifice credit if the process improves. Crisis is not where we should be seeking glory, if that's what's needed to get someone on a better path, then take pride in knowing you improved the world.
Issue 2, there are a lot of voices but no clarity on who is the primary information source.
Be honest, when was the last time you checked in with your colleagues at similar or affiliated organizations? Do you know your counterpart in adjacent localities? At the hospital? Schools? Major employers? Do you take time to check in with people in divisions other than your own within your organizations when you do not need them?
If not, it's time to start. When we are in crisis, it is vital we are all singing from the same song sheet. When people rely on the information we give them to stay safe and healthy, we cannot afford for them not to know what information can be trusted. If you are facing a crisis, your role may be to lead, but it also may be to support. In a pandemic? You will probably do a little of both. This crisis won't work itself out over a day, this is going to be months. Have a conference call with your colleagues and start talking. Maybe the regional health department is the best subject matter expert, but they lack the capacity to do communications at the scale necessary. Who can step in and assist? Tap into your assets. Keep the communication with this team ongoing. Check in regularly In governmental emergency management response, I would be calling this a Joint Information Center (JIC) but it is a solid practice whether you are in government or not. Once you're in a quieter time, meet your colleagues for coffee, build those relationships. Trust me, it will pay off.
Issue 3, sometimes we don't have the answers.
It is human nature to want to be in the know or to have others think we are in the know. Usually, it's fine. So you didn't see the movie everyone is talking about but nodded knowingly at some reference at a dinner party? No big deal. We all fake it until we make it sometimes.
Do not fake it in crisis. This is not the time to pretend you know what you're talking about it you don't. I don't care if someone thinks you're out of a loop you should have been in, you need to know before you show. Your new catch phrase is "I don't know, but let me find out." You will not always be in the room where new information is discovered. Facts change fast, time stamp your answers. Say, "at 2:20pm x was true."
Be prepared to not know and to not get an answer. This is when you pivot to process. if we don't have the answer, what are we doing to get it? When do you think you will have it? Crisis is a time when we want to hide but instead have to show. Your candid response highlights that you are only interested in truth. Embrace it.
Crisis is complex and never the same. But we approach it with our four e's in mind and with our communities best interests at heart, we will get to the other side knowing we did the best we can.
Need some help right now? Want to plan for future crisis communication? Get in touch.