Risky Business: Communicating in Turbulent Times

Remember when communicating in high-risk situations seemed like something that companies operating in political hotspots required? Or formed part of contingency plans that you never fully expected to implement?

2020 has changed all that. With the coronavirus spreading across the globe, communicating in risk situations has become the function of companies and business leaders around the world.

Yago de la Cierva, a professor of Managing People in Organizations at IESE, is an expert in communications, especially in crisis situations. He has advice on how companies should approach communications during these turbulent times, along with seven best practices to keep in mind.

First, the groundwork. Companies should start with the understanding that perceptions are as important as facts, de la Cierva says. At the same time, leaders must be genuinely dedicated to reducing risks for employees, which means that the perception of risk and actual risk coincide. And, fundamentally, companies should remember that while there are many stakeholders to keep in mind, the most important audience at times like these is internal: the employees and teams who comprise the organization.

With that in mind, de la Cierva offers the following seven best practices when communicating in risk situations:

1. Understand how we perceive risk. Risk perception is subjective, and can depend on factors ranging from a person’s age to their educational levels to their responsibilities in life. There are many things we don’t know about each other.

  • Tips: Be prepared for different reactions, and personalize your messages as much as possible. Now is the time to listen, to stay calm, to be patient. “Empathy is the way to counter fear,” he says.

2. Identify the risk factors. The more people know and understand the risks, the better. Familiarity brings a sense of control over the situation.

  • Tips: Provide enough information for your employees to understand the risks they are facing and their causes. Now is not the time for paternalism.

3. Eyes on the future. People will accept mistakes and accidents happen, but they want to know what will happen in the future. Can I trust my boss to lead going forward?

  • Tips: Use different scenarios to give people an idea of what may be in store. Offer analysis, diagnosis and solutions. “Communicating with scenarios will allow you to communicate what the future looks like,” he says.

4. Allow for distraction. Even in the best of situations, people have a hard time paying close attention to messaging. That’s even more the case in such volatile times.

  • Tips: Use clear, direct language, avoiding legal, medical or scientific jargon. Use examples and graphics, and don’t be afraid of bi-directional channels such as social media, which give employees the chance to express their opinion.

5. Silence is not golden. “Silence doesn’t work in risk situations. In risk situations, anxiety increases in the void,” de la Cierva says. And it’s important not just to deliver messages, but to connect with employees in an authentic way.

  • Tips: Reach out to employees on their own terms and according to their perceptions – not yours. Don’t be afraid to provide frequent updates – many employees will find that reassuring.

6. Make your tone your message. Crisis situations change quickly, and an excess of confidence or arrogance will only make reasonable employees panic. “And when there’s panic, internal unity is broken,” according to de la Cierva.

  • Tips: Talk only about what you know and is relevant to your business; let others talk about the rest. Show flexibility and humility, and prepare responses to all probable – and improbable — questions from employees.

7. Favor altruism. People want to know what’s happening but they also want to do their part. Companies can serve as organized groups in the midst of chaos.

  • Tips: Provide employees with ways they can help and contribute to resolve the situation.

This post is also available in: Spanish

One comment

  1. Excellent article, and indeed perceptions are as important as facts in a moment like this. I live in Brazil, where political fights and population well being are in place at yhis momento, so companies here must looking for reliable information to translate to their business environment and needs, a little bit more complex in this case.

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