A lesson from the schools crisis
On Monday 4 January, primary schools returned from the Christmas break only to learn by the end of the day that school was out again, at least until half term. Parents felt angered, confused and ultimately disillusioned with what was perceived as incompetent decision-making on the part of the Government.
Without getting into the ins and outs of the circumstances that led to that particular crisis in confidence, the incident focused minds on some crucial questions in relation to the challenge of communicating in times of crisis: just how much is it wise to communicate and when?
It is a challenge facing most organisations in the wake of Covid-19, to different extents and with differing consequences.
For some sectors, there is fundamental business continuity uncertainty related to whether or not you will be able to open. If yes, then what the (ever changing) legislation will look like and how your operation may need to adapt. For every business operating in a pandemic, the risks of contagion and self-isolation mean greater workforce uncertainty and the need, not only to consider operational continuity, but how to support colleagues dealing with anxiety, fear, isolation and, in many instances, home schooling.
In the face of so much unpredictability, people might be left wondering whether the most sensible course of action is actually to say nothing.
There are certainly instances when there is much to be said for a ‘watch and wait’ approach before committing to a public position. But it isn’t always viable: in the schools example, parents and teachers need to know if children will be in school or not.
So what exactly are the options?
1. Postponing decisions and announcements for as long as possible
Gathering as much information as possible before making public statements is of course sensible. If you dive straight in, you can easily find yourself having to reverse your decisions and risk ‘looking stupid’. On the other hand though, waiting too long can appear as if you have your head in the sand and cause huge amounts of frustration for people whose lives hang on your answers. It also risks attracting flak later for not having acted sooner. As we see played out on the national stage daily, these are difficult judgments!
2. Avoiding public announcements and simply fielding questions as they arise
This can be tempting at first and avoids having to ‘backtrack’ every time there is a policy change. It is however very time-intensive, risks inconsistent messages to different individuals, and from an organisational perspective, isn’t the most efficient way to communicate, especially if your stakeholder numbers are large.
3. Frequent, transparent updates, acknowledging the unknowns
Although the content of your messages may not always be welcome right now, communicating regularly shows that you care and that you are thinking about the people who matter to you – your colleagues, your customers and your communities. And in most relationships, this is often the measure that counts.
In reality, there is a role for all three approaches, depending on the context and the stakeholders involved. While there are no easy answers, planning your communication means thinking hard not just about the what, but also the why and when. Some important questions to ask are what will the consequences be of saying nothing and who needs to know what.
The stark reality in times of uncertainty is that you can’t control events but you can still control your message.
In practical terms, this means giving certainty where you can, empowering people as much as possible and arming them with as much information as possible. Within this, there will be judgement calls that depend on your audience and what’s right for them.
What is universal though is that in times of flux, people crave information more than ever and a little honesty goes a long way. You don’t need to pretend you have all the answers. You won’t always get it right, but if the people around you can count on you to be there, to be open and to be transparent, they’ll most likely thank you for it.