Communicating In Times of Uncertainty

By Heather Campbell

It’s impossible not to notice. We’re all conscious of the growing concerns around coronavirus. 

It’s certainly something that is a regular subject of conversation and changed behaviour here in the CommsMasters office, as it is across our clients.

As a Managing Director, I’m trying to strike the right balance between making decisions to mitigate risks whilst also recognising the implications any action has on our business.

Like most leaders, I don’t really know what to do for the best.

What I do know, though, is that these are the times that, as Senior Leaders, we can earn our stripes by getting communication right with the people we lead. 

People in your organisation will be uncertain, anxious and even a bit scared. They may be worried about their health and the health of those they care for; and, they’ll be concerned about the uncertainty surrounding their work. The former is best left for medical professionals to address; however, we need to ensure we are communicating correctly to address the latter. 

Getting internal communication right is always important. During a time of uncertainty, its importance skyrockets.

 And yet this is a time when leaders fall foul of the most obvious mistakes.

 Perhaps you’ve already learned some painful lessons from your own experiences – the credit crunch and all the worries around that isn’t so long ago. And, of course, the last few years have seen the ups and downs of Brexit here in the UK. 

Whether it’s a universal issue or one specific to a sector or even one organisation, here are the three fundamental guidelines I start with when helping leaders communicate during such times.

Stay visible

It can be tempting for leaders to inadvertently distance themselves. You have even more on your plate; it’s easy to get stuck in “crisis-management” meetings, and forget to engage with people.

Or maybe you choose to step back. Sometimes this is due to fear of saying the wrong thing, other times it’s because you yourself are not insulated from the impact of current events.

The problem is – whatever the reason – employees experience silence at the very time they most need information and direction. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, employees abhor silence from their leaders.

That’s why it’s so important for leaders to be present, visible, and engaged. Get out and about; talk, listen and make yourself available for questions and support. And, yes, you can (and potentially should right now) do this virtually. 

 Remember: other media moves quickly

This is not the time to “dot the ‘I’s” and “cross the ‘T’s” before you start communicating. If you do, other media will become the information source instead.

Journalists move so quickly that they leave leaders gasping for breath in their wake. And let’s face it, the formal media’s role is not to provide meaningful information for those right at the centre of the crisis – the public in general, and your employees, specifically.

And of course, the rise of informal, online networks such as Twitter and Facebook can beat even the formal media hands-down for speed. Again, these sources are not focussed on providing the accurate information that your people need.

Often vehicles like WhatsApp can be a forum for groups of employees to chat amongst themselves. Without proper communication coming from Senior Leadership, this becomes a breeding ground for rumours and uncertainty. 

Be honest

Avoid putting an unnecessary positive spin on your communications. Crafting the ‘spin’ wastes time and people see through it. This creates a lack of trust, not just now but afterwards too when you are getting back to business as usual.

I recently asked people in one of our client organisations what was most important for them to hear when a crisis arose. Here’s what they said: 

“Give us an authentic message. When a message is crafted too carefully, it loses spirit and meaning. We want the unvarnished truth.”


Remember, right now communication moves to a new level of importance and requires a fluidity between reaction and proaction. 

Getting this right is crucial in the “here and now” as well as for the longer-term trust relationship. Stay visible; be proactive; be honest.

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