Effective leadership communication amid a crisis

The responsibility of governments to communicate public health information in response to the coronavirus pandemic is clear. Business leaders also have a role in communicating to a broad range of stakeholders, including staff, consumers, suppliers, and investors.

In larger companies, leaders can rely on a crisis communications team for advice, but they will still be expected to take key roles in communicating important messages.

Rhiannon Evans, crisis manager at UK-headquartered communications agency Beattie Group, said that in both internal and external communications leaders need to demonstrate “what they are doing as a business to keep their … staff and the wider community safe”. She added that leaders’ communications need to align with the company’s values.

If the decision is to show the leader’s face publicly, generally a pre-recorded video is preferable to a live feed to avoid any problems, Evans said. A Q&A can be circulated at the same time.

Evans said that in a typical crisis a company would only communicate with a limited number of stakeholders, but the current situation impacts everybody — clients, staff, investors, shareholders, supply chain partners, industry competitors, and policymakers.

“What you are saying externally, particularly in more public forums … it needs to work for what you want to be saying to each of those groups,” she said.

Communicating with staff

Evans said information for staff may need to be communicated on a need-to-know basis. She said it is important to tell staff what is expected of them, what the company policies are, and what you are doing to keep them safe. It is also important to communicate the pay structure in place, especially if staff need to self-isolate.

Communicate internally first, she advised. “It doesn’t have to be a long time before. It could be just before or even pretty much coinciding with your external comms,” she said. “The last thing you want is putting out confident external comms and then staff saying, ‘Hold on a second; you’re saying this to our customers, but you are interested in keeping the business going — we have no idea of what we are doing, and I don’t feel safe.’”

It is important to keep staff communications company-wide to avoid speculation within the business. More specific measures for a country or team can be communicated additionally at that localised level, she said.

Don’t assume knowledge, but rather tell employees clearly what the government and company advice and policies are for this crisis, Evans advised. Special policies that relate to customers should also be explained to staff, she said.

Francis Ingham is UK-based director-general of the Public Relations and Communications Association and chief executive of the International Communications Consultancy Organisation, which represents around 3,000 PR agencies globally.

He said the key things leaders need to convey in a crisis, such as the current health and economic one, are reassurance, honesty, and confidence.

Senior leaders such as CEOs and CFOs tend to use legalistic language, which they should resist, he suggested. “It is all too easy for particularly very big companies to express anodyne or defensive statements that take no account of how people feel about things,” Ingham said.

The biggest brand ambassadors for any company are its employees, he said. “Leaders of companies therefore need to remember that they have to give at least as much information in as timely a manner … to their staff as they do to investors or the public.”

“When they are writing internal communications, leaders need to expect that every single word they write will be in the public domain and communicate accordingly,” he advised.

Social media

Big press conferences are generally less frequent today than previously, Ingham said, but press statements can “provide a solid foundation”. He added that “there is definitely an expectation now that wasn’t there even a few years ago that leaders will communicate by social media to get their message out”.

Ingham’s and Evans’s advice for leaders’ use of social media is:

  • Be succinct and frank.
  • Be consistent with the company’s other communication channels.
  • Resist the temptation to respond to some of the questions raised on social media platforms “as it can create a vortex of ludicrous commentary”, Ingham said.
  • If you don’t normally post on social media, it is not necessary to start now. People won’t be expecting to see your messages there.
  • Don’t let social media have an undue influence on decisions already made. Do not be bullied into changing your mind.

When business leaders communicate, they need to consider their audience’s geographical spread. The key, Ingham said, is having a core message that conveys central facts but is delivered in a region- or country-specific way.

“If you are operating in the UK, you are going to be using Twitter to put out your message. If you’re operating also in Dubai … you wouldn’t use that there, but you would use Twitter, for example, in Singapore.”

Leaders of global companies with operations in the Middle East, he suggested, should try not to put out important messages on a Friday, as it is the Muslim day of worship and the weekend. “All too often companies are oblivious to that fact, and it goes down very poorly on the ground.”

Leaders should be careful not to be critical of any government’s response to the current crisis, Evans warned.

Simon Lancaster, director of Bespoke Speechwriting Services, said that in a crisis, leaders — both business and political — have a role “to fill those empty gaps in our lives [and] to join things together. They provide order out of chaos, hope in place of fear, and … provide a sense of connection, pride, and purpose when we’re feeling lost, aimless, scared, and, quite possibly, unwell.”

Communication basics

Lancaster said that for business leaders in a crisis situation, the three basic elements of communication still apply:

  • Empathy. This means showing that you’re on people’s side, that “you have their back”.
  • Metaphor. Using metaphors when communicating can make real something that is otherwise abstract.
  • Simple rhetorical devices. These include repetition of words, phrases, and sentences; the rule of three, which means grouping words, phrases, or sentences in threes for maximum effect on the audience; and rhyme.

Lancaster’s template for a crisis speech consists of four steps based on the mnemonic FEAR:

  • Facts. People crave knowledge in a crisis, so start with an authoritative statement of facts. This sets the tone and establishes trust. Explain clearly what you do and don’t know. People like this honesty. This is where you establish your ethos, earning your credibility, so keep calm. Control your breathing. Keep your feet firmly on the ground. Look people straight on.
  • Enemy. Highlight what it is that people are up against. Amid the coronavirus pandemic the principal enemy is the virus itself. Political — and business — leaders have a choice of metaphor to use to describe this enemy. Some use “war” metaphors such as “advancing”, “defeat”, and “mobilise”, which show power and ask people to put their faith in the leader. Others may use “unknown journey” metaphors, which show humility and invite different people to contribute their knowledge upwards.
  • Action. Having framed your speech, the best way to get your main point and call to action across is by using simple rhetorical devices.
  • Reward. People need an incentive to move forward — so a speech should end positively and optimistically with high rhetoric and a grand appeal to unity, values, and hope.

For more news and reporting on the coronavirus and how management accountants can handle challenges related to the outbreak, visit FM’s coronavirus resources page.

Oliver Rowe ( is an FM magazine senior editor.