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10 Tips for Communicating in A Crisis

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

When it comes to communicating in a crisis less can often be more.

In a crisis, communiques and emails with paragraphs and paragraphs of text are largely ineffective because when people are stressed, they have a reduced ability to process everything that is coming at them. This is especially true during a major national or international crisis and is something every military force has known for millennia.

Military commanders have long understood that they have to be clear and succinct in their commands if they are to achieve their objectives. Research clearly shows that in a crisis the brain goes into partial shutdown with the hippocampus consolidating information for you, which is a bit like a mobile phone going to reduced battery mode in order to conserve energy.

If we take the military analogy above and apply it to a government or large organisation, then the essential truth, that less is often more, remains the same when it comes to communicating effectively with colleagues. This is especially the case in hierarchical organisations where there is often several layers of management from Presidents, to CEOS, Company Boards, Heads of Department, Heads of Unit, Project Managers and Project Teams. It doesn't take long to see how communication from all these sources as well as from families, regional authorities and national governments can quickly overwhelm a solidarity individual. Covid-19 is an international crisis almost without modern parallel so we can see the stakes are particularly high when it comes to communicating effectively in such a crowded field of would-be messengers.

The following 10 Tips should hopefully be of some use when you are considering how best to communicate with colleagues during a major crisis.

1. During a crisis, a single informed source should ideally speak for a department or organisation so that colleagues are not getting information from several sources at the same time, which will only lead to backed up inboxes, confusion and needless duplication.

2. Emails in particular should be succinct and to the point so that you are maximising the ability of potentially stressed colleagues to process the information they are receiving. In terms of layout, a short opening statement, followed by bullet points and concluded with a brief summary always looks well. I accept this approach may not always be possible given circumstances.

3. Emails can get deleted or buried in the sheer volume of information coming at colleagues, who are also probably active on several online or social media platforms. While technology has revolutionised the flow of information, the downside is the volume has increased exponentially, no more so than during a major crisis, so, keep it simple if at all possible.

4. It is good practice for critical information to be located on a customised 'crisis webpage', which updates regularly and where key items are grouped under clear headings. The link to the page can be included in every major communique so that colleagues can refer to it and forward on when the need arises. The 'crisis webpage' should not be a wall of words but an engaging page with succinct and clearly laid out information that can be easily digested. Break it down!

5. Infographics are a very useful means of conveying information and have been used widely in the Covid-19 outbreak to date. Information in graphic format can be quickly absorbed by the brain and also forwarded to colleagues

who may not be fully in the loop. Short videos can also be effective is properly shot.

6. With the technological revolution that has taken place, organisations have a wide array of online platforms at their disposal for communicating their well-crafted message including: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn Youtube etc. Again less is more. There used to be a story going around that former Prime Minister Albert Reynolds would have his senior civil servants prepare memos on critical topics that were no longer than a page. It would seem Albert understood the power of brevity, succinctness and accuracy.

7. In a major national crisis, there is a communication hierarchy for the average receiver which is 1) family 2) government statements and 3) organisational or work-setting correspondence. Given this natural human response, it is even more important for an organisation to have a tightly run communication process, which could possibly include set days or times in the week when critical organisational information is released - certainly not at 8am on a Monday nor 5pm on a Friday. The need to work with communication professionals to develop an effective communication strategy especially for a crisis that may last months is an absolute must. Fail to plan, plan to fail.

8. Communication is a two-way street, so colleagues receiving correspondence from an organisation that has been blindsided by a fast-moving crisis should understand that those at the epicentre of the storm are trying to cope under intense pressure. It is important to cut those individual some slack, especially at the beginning of any crisis as strategies and means of communicating effectively may take a while to develop especially for those organisations not normally subject to such pressure. Understanding on both sides is important.

9. A smart organisation will always seek feedback from its employees on how its communications are being perceived. A UCC colleague of mine would always say: "the biggest room in the world, is the room for self-improvement". It is important for an organisation to conduct reviews of itself to see how it can improve its 'message delivery'. The rule is: respond, review and adjust.

10. The research on effective leadership and effective communication both highlight the absolute importance of empathy. Human Beings like to see empathy displayed and the same applies to communication during a crisis. Research shows that being perceived as empathetic and caring provides greater opportunity for the message to be accepted by the receiver. So while organisations have to focus on getting their message out, they should not lose sight of the important human dimension which should ideally imbue their message.

The considerable body of research carried out on how to effectively communicate in a crisis can be distilled down to the need for critical information to be communicated in as simple and succinct a manner as is humanly possible because in a crisis the communication arena is a highly crowded field with competing priorities. Avoid message fatigue at all costs!

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Useful Links

Your brain On Crisis: Why a degree of simplicity is essential to disaster recovery:

Communicating during a crisis:

How to Communicate in a Crisis:

Stand Out: How To Communicate in Times of Crisis:

Three Things You Need to Know About Crisis Management:

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