A veteran of communication agencies shares why maintaining audience trust is the most important factor.
5 min read
The opinions expressed by collaborators are personal.
Recently, I was sitting in the food area of our office when someone saw a large bag of cheese fries on the counter. My answer to your question “Are they for someone?” It was “Sure! And they only have a little virus. ” This was followed by a (nervous) laugh from those around me and I saw how this person paused, deliberately walking away from the bag of potatoes. Our words, even if they are joking, are powerful.
You might be biased from spending 20 years leading communication agencies, but I think communicating the right things at the right time is often the most important thing you can do.
Peter Sandman has a very interesting risk equation that says “Risk = Danger x Outrage.” This is particularly important when facing problems of high relevance and public impact. The only element we have some control over in that equation is outrage.
Today, we are all focused on one problem. But before that, there was another. And in a few years, it will be some other problem. Here are some tips for leaders as they decide when and how to deal with crisis situations with their teams and clients.
There is no over-communication (usually)
The worst thing you can have in your company is an information gap, since it will always be filled. For example, I am scheduled to attend several conferences in the coming weeks. Some people have already started to communicate their concerns to me. Last week, I woke up to two emails from people planning to go with me to one of the conferences. The organizers have not told us anything and my colleagues are already assuming the worst, they even canceled flights and plans. You must communicate, and rarely can you exceed yourself by doing so.
Communicate even when you haven't made a decision
One of the biggest mistakes we make is waiting to have all the facts and all the decisions made. Sharing misinformation is the biggest mistake of all, so of course we want to be precise. But with a simple “we are evaluating it” or “decisions are being made” it is much better than not communicating anything. If you can tell your people when you are going to make the decision, the better.
It is worth changing your mind
In fact, with the limited information we have, there is not much more we can do. For example, before our team moved into home office , we had communicated that we were not yet in a position to do so, but that we were still monitoring and evaluating the situation. A week later, we decided to switch to remote work. Being transparent and sharing that we were open to change our minds as we had more information helped us build trust. If you pretend to have all the answers, chances are you will increase “outrage” (see formula above), raising the risk.
Get the balance right
Your personality and risk tolerance play a role in your visceral reaction to a crisis. If you think the current situation you're facing is an overly ridiculous reaction or if you think the end of the world is near, you should put personal feelings aside to connect with those on both sides. If you exaggerate your reaction, you fuel fear that will increase the risk. If you minimize what others perceive as real risk, they will not listen to you or even worse, the outrage will grow.
Right now, companies, CEOs, doctors, and government agencies are part of a massive wave of communication. Just remember that when you communicate during a crisis, be it in this one or the one that will surely come later, make sure to be transparent and honest. It's okay not to have all the answers, nobody has them, but those who manage to get ahead will be those who manage to manage the only element we can control at this moment: the trust of your audience.