Bring me my soapbox

16 April 2020  |  Rich M

A five-step field guide to communicating with staff during a crisis


It is hard to overestimate the importance of spoken communication. The fate of entire businesses hinges on one executive’s ability to put across key points persuasively, in their own style. The staff are usually the most important, most affected and most in need of effective communication. Until Covid-19 is over, every leader will need to be comfortable and accomplished on their soapbox. 

Blending the disciplines of crisis management, media handling and executive communication, here is a field guide to help you plan and execute communication with your staff.

1. Preparation – Plan your impact

  1. Snap acknowledgement  Issue an immediate acknowledgement to everyone that you are aware of the situation and will be back in touch at X time. This prevents unnecessary contact with your office and reassures all that this matter has your attention. 
  2. Who? – Identify exactly who needs to be communicated with – groups and subgroups. Anticipate what each group is concerned about.
  3. Medium – the quickest, most convenient and lowest risk medium is email. It is also uninspiring and unsatisfactory for crisis communication. Live VC, recorded video or in person is what to aim for. Failing that, telephone.

In the vast majority of cases, prepared messages are too long and indulgent. People rarely say “I wish that went on for longer”.


2. Structure  Organising and structuring your thoughts

  1. 10-second test – Ask yourself one simple question: if I only had ten seconds with them, what would I say? This exercise forces you to go straight to the heart of the situation: “The government will stand behind businesses large and small. We will do whatever it takes”. This is what you open and close with. Forget the platitudes, get straight to the point.
  2. Four items (max) – Once you know your headline message, identify three or four supporting points or relevant chunks of information. For example, (1) extension of business interruption loan schemes to small- and medium-sized businesses; (2) business rates holiday regardless of rateable value for certain sectors; (3) increase financial support for vulnerable people via hardship funds and mortgage holidays. These support your headline message.
  3. How long? – In the vast majority of cases, prepared messages are too long and indulgent. People rarely say “I wish that went on for longer”. This applies to you. Cut out between 40%–60% of your original version. Less is more.

3. Delivery – Coming across as you

  1. Being yourself – There will be a temptation to overcompensate or even ‘act’ because of the gravity of the situation. Resist it. The most important thing is that your people see you being yourself. Relaxed conversation is universally reassuring for all audiences – this is what you are aiming for.
  2. Pausing  They won’t remember what you said; they will remember what they thought about what you said. They need silence to think, absorb and file the information. Quadruple the length of your pauses between the various segments. Don’t talk slowly, just pause between ideas and let them breathe.
  3. Notes – are not there to help you talk; they are there to help you stop talking. One issue leaders find is that their perfectly word-processed speeches are flat and lack tonal variation when they deliver them. You don’t speak how you write and you don’t write how you speak. Once you are clear on the content and structure, you should create a set of redacted bullets. This will allow you to say the right things in the right order, but in your own conversational style.

Your staff should do a good impression of you. If they can’t, you are probably under-communicating


4. Q&A – Earning your bread

  1. Should I? – Yes, Q&A is the main event. Where possible, try to spend 50%–75% of your allocated time on Q&A. If you truly care about allaying employee fears, Q&A is their opportunity to voice their particular concerns and for you to respond.
  2. Coming clean – Employees and the electorate despise evasive responses from leaders. It fools precisely no one. If you can’t respond for legal reasons, say so; if you don’t know the answer, say so. If the goal is to build trust and be candid with your people, transparency is required.
  3. Brevity  Shorter answers have more clarity.

5. Follow-up – Never knowingly under-communicating

  1. Repetition and frequency – Your staff should do a good impression of you. If they can’t, you are probably under-communicating. In the absence of information from, or access to, leaders, your people will conclude the worst and spread those thoughts. If there is no news, tell them. Repeat this five-step process until the crisis clears.

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