Covid-19 has put a spotlight on how leaders communicate with their employees, customers, and communities during unprecedented times. From reporting the latest updates on national television to issuing brand statements on social media, we're seeing leaders adapt their communications strategies daily. I'd argue that the ones doing it right share a common approach: They lead with empathy.
When crises hit, people expect leaders to rise to the occasion. But that doesn't mean you need to have all the answers (spoiler alert: you won't have them). I think people care more about leaders' ability to listen, understand, and empathize. Even if you can't fix someone's problems overnight, you can make them feel heard.
That's why empathy should be the key ingredient in your crisis communication strategy, whether you're sharing difficult news with employees, fielding calls from unhappy customers, or hosting a last-minute press conference. Here are five principles to help leaders navigate tough times with compassion.
1. Assume best intent.
During times of uncertainty, humans crave clarity. How long will this last? What does this mean for me? The longer it takes to get answers, the more anxious we get. So when your inbox, voicemail, or social media feed is flooded with frustrated messages, try not to get defensive. During a crisis, people typically aren't frustrated because of something you did or didn't do -- they're frustrated by the situation. Keep that in mind and assume best intent before responding to feedback, questions, or concerns.
2. Act with urgency.
When California Governor Gavin Newsom quickly introduced stringent limitations around Covid-19, many people wondered if it was too much, too soon. But his action proved to be wise in giving the state a head start in social distancing. His urgency has been matched with empathy for people impacted, including an executive order to support child care for essential workers. If you're a leader, don't wait to have perfect information or a detailed plan -- just acknowledging the gravity of what's happening and empathizing with people impacted goes a long way.
It's easy for things to fall through the cracks during a crisis. There are usually lots of cooks in the kitchen, moving pieces, and countless questions to consider. You can save yourself (and your team) a few headaches by overcommunicating. For starters, consider organizing daily stand-up meetings, in-person or virtually, with the core communications group, or starting a private Slack channel to keep everyone on the same page. Beyond the core players involved, anticipate the questions you may get from your employees, customers, or community. Address those concerns in an FAQ document that you can update and direct people to as the situation develops. Being proactive can help minimize stress internally and externally.
4. Don't be tone deaf.
We've all heard horror stories of public figures saying (or tweeting) something cringe-worthy during a crisis. (Just recently, this star-studded rendition of "Imagine" was widely criticized for being insensitive.) That's because when tension is high, the risk of appearing insensitive in your communication is, too. Whether you're about to hit send on an email or publish a Facebook post, remember to put yourself in someone else's shoes first. Is your tone relatable? Is the message inclusive of people of all backgrounds, economic statuses, and location? Could it be taken out of context easily? Gut-check that your communication reflects your audience, not just you and your organization.
5. Keep calm and lead on.
People take cues from leaders during a crisis to figure out how they should react. That's why it's important to be intentional about the tone you set. For example, if your emails or tweets are frantic and negative, you're sending signals to your audience that they should be even more worried than they thought. Instead, you want your communications to instill confidence. The advice I give to my team is that no one wants to be saved by a lifeguard who is panicking. We take our cues from people of authority when things are tough, so part of your job as a leader is the energy you bring to a situation.
How executives show up during uncertainty will define them as leaders. Covid-19 has challenged every contingency, risk mitigation, and crisis communications plan. But it's also challenged leaders to exercise empathy and compassion that will make a difference in the lives of their employees, customers, and communities.