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Building authenticity in crisis communications

Posted on 21st July 2020 at 13:01pm

Swiftly springing into action with a well-oiled plan and a team that knows just what to do and when could, has historically been seen to be the heart of an effective crisis response. In 2020 however, it simply isn’t enough to have the plans, policies, and procedures to deal with a crisis or emergency. You need to have more, says crisis communications consultant, Amanda Coleman.

We are currently witnessing a need for communication that comes from the heart of an organisation, not from the logical brain. Image: macrovector/123rf

Crisis communication has been going through a period of change in the past three years. Businesses and organisations that acknowledge and understand this, can respond effectively with their communication. The pace of this change has increased owing to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Two concepts that are now becoming central to an effective crisis communication response are authenticity and empathy. These must be seen in the words that are used, the actions that are taken and from the very top of the organisation. This is not about being a slick media operator and having all the statements pre-prepared and ready to go.

We are witnessing a need for communication that comes from the heart of an organisation, not from the logical brain. This leads to additional pressures on many other aspects of the crisis response, including the leadership skills that are required. Keeping the balance of appearing to be in charge and having things under control while, on the other hand showing some vulnerability, can be tough. Many weeks of working from home, seeing inside people’s homes, spotting their pets in the background of video calls and watching as family members appear in the background, has broken down many barriers. Now is the time to build on this.

Effective crisis communication stems from what you do, not what you say. If your actions and approach are rooted in dealing with the crisis so that it has a minimal impact on people, you are heading down the right road. Supporting this with honest information, delivered authentically and with transparency, will speed you towards your destination.

Covid-19 has put huge pressures on business leaders, who are faced with redesigning how they work to live with the pandemic while continuing to be economically viable. At the start of the year, nobody thought that this would be a requirement of senior leaders. To add to this, they are also faced with the challenge of ‘being themselves’. Business leaders are the same as everyone else; they have the same pressures, concerns and are not always immaculately turned out or prepared. So, who has carried this off well?

One of the people to watch is the much-praised New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. She manages to balance being direct, decisive and taking action with being a mother, showing herself at home dealing with lockdown and even answering questions about the Easter Bunny. This has added a huge amount of credibility to her crisis response, as she demonstrates strength and warmth simultaneously. Prime Minister Ardern projected the same attributes in the response to the New Zealand terror attacks in 2019, with empathy and honesty; what is more, they were delivered authentically.

The challenge of authenticity is that you cannot fake it effectively. This means developing a whole range of additional skills as a leader that will allow you to become more genuine and break down the barriers. These are the so-called ‘soft skills’ that often get overlooked in leadership training programmes. We need leaders who are skilled in vulnerability, empathy, corporate social responsibility, altruism and all things, alongside business acumen. It is not easy, but then we should not expect leading through a crisis to be simple.

Crisis response still needs that slick, well-practised plan but, from now on, it should be a plan that is focused on doing the right thing for the people who are affected. First and foremost, it should identify the consequences and help to manage them, so the impact is lessened and the move to recovery can be quicker. Now is the time to revisit the crisis management plans and procedures and look at them from the outside of the business in.

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