Brian Dillon says that the value of clear messaging and instilling confidence at a time of extreme uncertainty cannot be overstated.
The aftermath of the United Kingdom’s referendum on membership of the European Union has signalled seismic change, the reverberations of which have yet to be fully understood. The news is awash with opinion and views, generally of the ‘more heat than light’ variety and for many the realisation has dawned that the success of the Leave campaign was not accompanied by any real plan as to the way ahead to extract the UK from the EU.
Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, provided a good illlustration of effective communication during extraordinary circumstances (YouTube/Bank of England)
Future historians will no doubt reach their own conclusions, but in the present we can at least draw some lessons from recent events. One of the fundamental elements about responding effectively in extraordinary circumstances is communicating effectively. People look for direction, clarity and leadership. In the midst of the confusing referendum fallout, a good illustration of effective communication can be found in the contribution from the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney.
Shortly after the Prime Minister’s resignation announcement, Carney gave a press conference at the bank’s headquarters. It is available here and is worth viewing. The event was carefully stage-managed and he was first seen heading along a corridor, which led directly into the briefing room and his podium; this echoes the way the President of the United States manages his entrance to the White House press room. Conduct and demeanour start communicating before any words are uttered; the situation required composure, presence and authority.
The Governor had a prepared script and reminded us that the Bank considered Brexit to be the UK's most significant near-term risk to financial stability. Despite the gravity of the situation he did not speak in pejorative terms and used words that made the point without being provocative. He spoke of: “Uncertainty and adjustment,” then: “Market and economic volatility.” Yet the greater part of his five-minute conference was focused on the actions the Bank had already taken and would further commission to shore up the economy. In other words, he was saying that the result might have shocked others, but not the Bank as it had recognised the risk and had a plan in place ready to go. This is important because it moved the agenda onto something positive, taking action, rather than dwelling on negative circumstances.
The Governor outlined the key points of the Bank’s actions, which included close co-operation with HM Treasury, using a range of measures. He acknowledged the need to work with stakeholders, adapt to changing circumstances and act decisively, if required, to prevent problems.
The key lessons of the Governor’s briefing are clear:
- Identify risks in advance and plan accordingly;
- Engage with key stakeholders to agree contingencies and key messages;
- Acknowledge impact but don’t over emphasise or understate the challenges;
- Demonstrate that you have a range of options available but remain flexible to changing circumstances;
- Recognise customer requirements and needs; and
- Plan your entire conference, the words used, style of delivery and even your entrance and exit.
The value of clear messaging and instilling confidence at a time of extreme uncertainty cannot be overstated. Ideally, this should be part of a wider recovery strategy but, at the very least, a good initial message buys you time while planning your next move. I would suggest there's something there for all leaders to consider in their own crisis communications. As to whether the Bank's contingency plans will work or not, that answer lies somewhere in the future.