As the current crises at Toyota and BP highlight, how you respond to a problem or crisis is the ultimate test of your leadership character. Knowing how to step up your communications efforts to the right levels during disorder can be a powerful tool in managing a crisis. Here are seven key lessons for communicating during crises.
- Be visible. Communicate and lead from the front. In a crisis, your key constituencies (your board, management, team, government, or the public) insist on hearing from the leader. Stay engaged and maintain consistency of purpose and action. Keep all the lines of communication open.
- Communicate in real-time and explain your position. If you do not communicate frequently with your key constituents, somebody else will. In the absence of information, people will develop their own perceptions of the problem and its implications. Keeping your constituencies well informed diffuses many suspicions and uncertainties.
- Be transparent and forthright right from the beginning. Face the realities of the problem and its potential consequences. Acknowledge what you know about the problem or crisis and go into detail about what steps you are taking in response. Proactive communication is reassuring and prevents perceptions of negligence and evasion from becoming realities.
- Research thoroughly the challenges you face and your options for remedial actions. Be prepared to describe everything that matters at each moment. Carefully administer your communication plan with due consideration to possible litigations and penalties.
- Be objective and calm. Avoid engaging in finger pointing and playing pass-the-parcel. Avoid criticizing and discrediting the victims or critics. Continuously verbalize empathy and responsibility, and announce plans for early resolutions and restitution.
- Remember that your attitude sets the tone for the rest of your organization. If you take a defensive position, play victim or engage in finger pointing, the rest of your organization will react the same way. Through your communications, set a positive tone to build confidence within your organization and promote constructive responses.
- As soon as the crisis dissolves, research and communicate opportunities to make fundamental changes to improve your organization. Reiterate your core values and missions. Revamp internal practices as necessary and follow through on all initiatives to rebuild your credibility. Consider organizational changes and new processes for managing future crises.