Leader communication in a crisis

04 May 2020

Leaders are facing their biggest challenge in a generation. Business contingency plans are in operation and remote working is now the norm.

As one Leader put it: “Once we had 3,000 people working in 30 locations. Now we have 3,000 people working in 3,000 locations.”

Sickness, caring and homeschooling are testing employee wellbeing and productivity to the limit. Future business plans are in doubt in a changing environment and the rapid adoption of new technologies.

Employees are looking to Leaders for reassurance now more than ever.

The Edelman Trust Barometer Survey 2020 found that CEOs are expected to lead from the front. 92% of employees say CEOs should speak out on issues of the day. Three-quarters of the general population believe CEOs should take the lead on change instead of waiting for government to impose it.

Genuine and honest Leader communication is not just expected but required. So how can Leaders engage employees during a crisis so they thrive, not just survive?

Give company-specific facts.

Employees need to know “what is our response, so what and what do we do now?” Leader communication must provide simple, concise, timely, action-orientated, audience-centric messages.

Provide clarity when there is none.

When trust is low or there’s uncertainty in the environment, clear, simple Leader communication is crucial to morale and engagement.

Share the vision and strategy.

According to survey data from communicators in 79 different organisations, the most important thing a Leader should be talking about is the organisation’s vision and strategy. This does not need to be some grand lofty statement or pithy catch cry. But a good vision must be concise, memorable, and repeated constantly. Tell people what actions they need to take as a result and advice must be simple, relevant and practical.

Be a broken record.

Many Leaders underestimate the number of times they need to repeat their messages. One good test is to ask people at random to recall the vision and strategy. You may be surprised about the variety of answers you get.

Share decisions and the reasons behind them.

Too often Leaders wait until all their ducks are in a row before they are confident to communicate – this can erode trust. Remember – it’s ok to say they don’t have all the answers yet.

Share bad news as well as good.

As well as updates on how the organisation is tracking against its goals, Leader communication should be honest and transparent in the face of challenges. Employees want to know when things aren’t going well. So ask their opinion and get them involved in the solution.

Intentions yes, predictions no.

Nobody knows how the Covid-19 crisis will play out. Leaders who talk as if they do know, with cocksure pronouncements and authoritative predictions, risk losing the trust of stakeholders. Leaders must state and explain intentions, provide concrete plans to implement them and consistent actions to back them up.

Liverpool FC manager Jurgen Klopp admitted he didn’t know anything about COVID-19, and we loved him for it. The Liverpool FC manager impressed with his refusal to jump on the bandwagon,  telling journalists he is just a football manager and his opinion on COVID-19 didn’t matter. His comments went viral as an example of blunt good sense: “We have to speak about things in the right manner, not people with no knowledge like me….I just wear a baseball cap and have a bad shave.”

Be visible.

Leadership communications – in whatever medium – must make leaders more visible than may be comfortable. This could include more frequent appearances on mediums such as teleconferences or video. Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo’s daily COVID-19 briefings have become must-see television. His explanation for his popularity is simple. “I’m not doing anything different than I have ever done. It’s just a bigger audience. And it’s a more intense time.”

Feel the pain too.

Leader communication must demonstrate they understand the impact of crisis on others. Teresa Wiseman defines empathy as the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes, staying out of judgement, recognising emotion in other people and communicating that. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s empathetic leadership style has seen her standing with, rather than preaching at, the people of her nation.

106 Communications is an award-winning communications consultancy on a mission to making work better. We create communications to engage and inspire through our three expert-led practises in Internal Communications, Change Communications and Branding & Marketing. To improve your Leader communications, contact Henry Davies on

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