One CEO's Tips for Communicating During a Crisis

A communications agency veteran shares why maintaining your audience's trust is the most important factor.

learn more about Shannon Litton

By Shannon Litton

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Recently, I was sitting in the bistro area of our office when someone saw a big bag of chips and some queso on the kitchen counter. My response to "Is this for anyone?" was "Sure. And it only has a little virus in it." That was followed by (nervous) laughter from those nearby, and I watched the team member pause, deliberate and ultimately walk away from the bowl of chips. Our words, even in jest, are powerful.

It may be that I'm biased having spent 20 years leading communication agencies, but I believe communicating the right things at the right time is often the most important thing you can do.

Related: 3 Key Steps for Crisis Communication

Peter Sandman has an interesting risk equation that says Risk = Hazard x Outrage. This is especially important as we deal with issues of high public prominence and impact. The only element we have any control over in that equation is outrage.

Today everyone is focused on one problem. But before that, it was something else. And a few years from now, it will be something else. Here are a few recommendations for leaders as they decide when and how to address crisis situations with their teams and customers.

Related: How to Communicate Effectively During a Crisis

There is (nearly) no such thing as overcommunication

The worst thing you can have in your organization is an information vacuum. It will be filled. For instance, I am scheduled to attend several conferences in the coming weeks. Some have wisely already begun addressing concerns. Last week, I woke up to two emails from individuals who are planning to attend one conference with me. We have heard nothing from the conference planners and my fellow attendees are assuming the worst — even canceling flights and plans. You must communicate, and you can rarely overdo it.

Communicate even when you don't have a decision

One of the biggest mistakes we make is waiting for all the facts and all the decisions to be made. Sharing misinformation is the biggest mistake of all, so of course we want to be factually correct. But a simple "We are evaluating" or "Decisions are being made" is much better than no communication at all. If you can tell your audience when to expect a decision, even better.

It's OK to change your mind

In fact, with the limited info we have, there is little other choice. For instance, before our team moved to work remote, we had shared that we were not currently moving that direction as a whole — yet. But we also communicated that we would continue to monitor and evaluate the situation. A week later, our team went remote. Being transparent to share that we're open to change as details become available helps to build trust. If you pretend to have all the answers, you will likely increase "outrage" (see formula above), which drives up your risk.

Strike the right balance

Your personality and risk tolerance play a lot into your gut reaction during a crisis. Whether you believe the current situation you're being faced with is a ridiculous overreaction or you believe the end is near, you have to put personal feelings aside to connect with those in both camps. If you overreact, you fuel the fear that will increase your risk. If you downplay what others perceive to be a real risk, they won't listen to you. Worse yet, outrage will grow.

Right now, companies, CEOs, doctors and government agencies are part of a massive wave of communication. Just remember that when you do communicate in a crisis, whether it is this one or the one that will surely follow, be clear and be honest. You don't have all the answers, and that's OK. None of us do. But those who get ahead will manage the only element we have any control over at this time — the trust of your audience.

Related: Five Ways To Anticipate A Reputation Or Communication Crisis

Shannon Litton

President & CEO of 5by5 Agency

Shannon Litton is the President and CEO of 5by5 Agency, a 2-time INC. 5000 listed-company. She has worked with over 300 organizations and is an expert in developing strategies that propel change down the street or around the world. Litton lives in Franklin, Tenn. with her husband and five children.

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