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In Practice

Four Ways to Effectively Communicate in Times of Crisis

A group of people sit in two rows against a wall with colorful posters. They are looking at a central woman speaking.

“Unprecedented times” is a phrase we’ve tired of hearing. But the fact remains that we continue to experience extraordinary situations at home and abroad. How effectively you communicate to your employees in these moments will have a profound and long-lasting impact.

From climate change catastrophes, a global pandemic and Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, it is difficult to recall what “normal” — or even a “new normal” — should feel like. While every generation experiences these types of events, it does not make them any less unsettling. As individuals, we’re all dealing with something. As organizations, we multiply “something” by a factor of employees, plus their family, friends and networks. The resulting answer helps to realize the full force of any crisis on your company and the people depending on you. Then, you have to deal with it.

I know, that’s easier said than done. No script, playbook or tried-and-true template exists for managing through the crises we face today. Information is everywhere, some of it true, some not. The people of Ukraine, for example, are recording their reality in real time and sharing it with the world. While there is no easy answer, consider these four steps to leading your organization through this — and future — crises.

Lead With a Point of View

Ensure that those who depend on you have a clear understanding of the organization’s stance and what it’s doing to support those impacted. Effectively communicating these messages will take effort and courage. Your position must be bold and clear. Developing a key message platform and cascading communication plan aimed at delivering messages with a common voice can build confidence and trust throughout the organization. 

Creating a strong story aligned with the organization’s direction — and telling it often — will become a foundation from which to lead your organization through any crisis. 

Exercise Empathy

In any time of crisis, basic survival instincts kick in. In the workplace, this may manifest as concerns about job security, the ability to care for family, and available resources to manage through a tough time. The crisis in Ukraine may affect people in unexpected ways. You may have colleagues or business partners directly in harm’s way. Or, some colleagues may have family impacts. Sometimes, the effects are subtle. For instance, my twelve-year-old asked what he needed to do if he heard a big airplane fly overhead. Should he get in the bathtub and cover up, as he does when we have tornado warnings? Knowing he is experiencing stress about the crisis, in turn, creates stress for me. It has been two decades since a foreign terrorist attack on U.S. soil, but when I hear questions like this from my son, I go right back to the place I was when I heard of the 9/11 attacks. It triggers fear and anxiety. When we lead with empathy and pull people close, we build spaces of refuge from fear and anxiety. As leaders, we need to “show up” for employees with empathy, even if you don’t have all the answers.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Having open lines of communication and regular contact points within your organization is important at all times, but even more so during a crisis. If you haven’t already, create avenues for two-way communication. Be transparent and real about the impacts the current crisis is having on the company, on employees and on you personally. Provide your leadership team, human resource professionals and people managers with talking points and a list of resources available to help employees navigate through this crisis. Remind employees about the mental health and support programs available through their benefits program and put this information at their fingertips with quick guides and links. There is a real sense of urgency to provide help now, so remember that intent counts more than perfection. 

Prepare for What’s Next

As we realized over the last several months, a true global crisis can last much longer than expected. Natural disasters? Still here. COVID-19? Still here. For the sake of the people of Ukraine and all impacted, I hope this ends quickly. Unfortunately, history shows us that even if the actual attack is short lived, the ripple effect around the globe will last for years to come. By now, nobody is questioning whether another crisis will come in our lifetime. Instead we ask: When? And what? To safeguard your employee experience today in preparation for the next crisis:

Shore up your mission, vision and values. Creating a strong story aligned with the organization’s direction — and telling it often — will become a foundation from which to lead your organization through any crisis. 

Evaluate and modernize your employee value proposition (EVP). The world of work has dramatically changed over the past several months. Proactively modernizing your EVP and realigning messages to articulate why your organization is still the best place to work will allow you to maintain a strong employment deal and help you attract, retain and engage key talent ― even during the rockiest of times. 

Build for resiliency. Create business resilience playbooks to prepare for the future of work. Integrating effective employee communication avenues is critical to executing on continuity plans during a crisis. Use digital communication platforms to connect with people at any time. Create two-way communication channels in order to solicit feedback in real time. Normalize the communication channels on an ongoing basis to develop a trusted source of information and support. 

In times of crisis, providing effective communication is mission critical to anchoring your employees to your organization, managing through the crisis and coming out stronger together on the other side. In the meantime, do the best you can. It will make a difference and go a long way during these so-called “unprecedented times.”

Deena Harvanek

Change and Communication Solutions Leader, Partner at Mercer

Deena is a Partner in Mercer’s Career Business where she develops integrated solutions across strategic consulting, core solutions and products.

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