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Leading in a Crisis: How to Successfully Communicate

The current pandemic has provided many examples of effective and not-so-effective communications strategies. Here are four pitfalls to avoid, and five proven strategies to keep the public informed and engaged.

by Arjen Boin, Allan McConnell, Eric Stern, Paul ‘t Hart / April 27, 2020
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Why ‘meaning-making’ matters

In every crisis, it is essential that government and public-sector leaders provide a compelling story. A good crisis narrative teaches the public about the realities of the predicament. It conveys what leaders know, do not know and cannot know, and what they are doing to figure out as much as possible. It recognizes emotions and sacrifices. It conveys social norms and political commitments. It instills hope and radiates confidence. An effective crisis narrative shapes public perceptions and channels public emotions and collective behavior in positive directions. We call this "meaning-making" and it is a critical task of crisis management. It combines the various tools of political communication: written (press releases, legislative briefings, staff emails), verbal (speeches, press conferences, media interviews, debates, vlogs) and symbolic instruments (visiting sites and facilities; engaging with victims, responders and staff; and attending funerals and memorial services).

Most leaders intuitively understand that meaning-making in a crisis is critical. Yet, many leaders find this task difficult to perform. The COVID-19 crisis has already produced a sizeable list of avoidable errors:

  • prolonged prevarication;
  • confused and contradictory messages;
  • too much talking, not enough listening;
  • maintaining a façade of being in control;
  • making promises that cannot be kept;
  • and initiating blame games.

We’ve unpacked decades of crisis research to explore key lessons for leaders to help them "make meaning" in times of a mega-crisis.

Communication failures can damage other parts of the response

The occurrence of an emergency and its escalation into a full-blown crisis tests the social contract between governments and citizens. It calls into question the behavior of authorities and the functioning of public organizations, as people ask how could this have happened and why were we not better prepared? It undermines popular trust and institutional legitimacy. Leaders need to actively counter this trust deficit if they want to remain effective.

Leaders who fail, by clumsy wording or dreadful performance, deepen rather than dampen the feeling of crisis. BP’s CEO Tony Hayward’s sullen claim that he "wanted his life back" after the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico undermined political and societal trust in the multinational. Former UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s wooden and perfunctory performance at the scene of the 2017 Grenfell Fire tragedy also comes to mind.

In Australia, the confusion around Scott Morrison’s perceived delay in returning from holiday during the most recent bushfires, followed by the optics of his initial visit to a disaster-stricken community prompted howls of outrage and a temporary drop in his approval ratings.

When leaders strike the right chord, engaging the “better angels” on the shoulders of the people (to borrow an image from Abraham Lincoln), the effect can be unifying, empowering, even catalytic. Winston Churchill powered Londoners through the massive bombings during World War II. Franklin Roosevelt’s inaugural address ("the only thing we have to fear is fear itself") and his fireside chats sent messages of hope and determination to Depression-stricken Americans. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern connected with the Muslim community that had been targeted in the deadly 2019 lone-wolf mosque attack. These leaders showed that meaning-making matters.

The absence of a compelling and appropriate crisis narrative opens the field to contenders who seek to present an alternative reading of the situation. Journalists, independent experts, the armchair commentariat on social media, disaffected citizens, monitorial watchdogs, political rivals, stakeholder lobbyists, disenchanted victims — there are plenty of actors who will seek to fill the void.

Leaders should expect counter-narratives, even “framing contests,” especially in today’s monitory democracies, where executive power is being read, checked and challenged as a matter of routine.

Communication pitfalls to be avoided

Crisis communication research consistently implores leaders not to go down some intuitively tempting but mostly self-defeating paths. Here are some pitfalls to be avoided:

1. Silence is golden
Leaders who are not seen, or appear unengaged and uninformed, will be seen as out of touch, indifferent, incompetent or callous, but waiting until you have more information is the logic of the cautious manager.

2. Downplaying the threat
Nothing is more damaging to credibility than prophesying that the emerging threat is not very dangerous, will probably soon dissipate, or is easy to contain — especially when unfolding events accompanied by powerful counter-narratives demonstrate the opposite. Think of Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s initial (and persistent) underestimation of the danger of COVID-19.

3. Pointing fingers
Crises are inherently political because they involve a conflict over how issues can be resolved. It has been said that "to explain is to blame." In periods of high stress, leaders may well be tempted to point out failures, inconsistencies and weaknesses in the policies of their predecessors or rivals. Blaming others tends to rebound on the messenger and makes the task of effective communication even more difficult.

4. Thinking the public will panic
Leaders sometimes think it is better to withhold information that may send the public into a panic. That is an understandable but ultimately misleading idea. There is a marked difference between understandable fear and concern prompting people to take precautionary or protective actions, and outright panic driving people into irrational herd behavior. Disaster researchers have shown consistently that the public rarely "panics." When frantic public anxieties do occur, it is because people do not receive timely and accurate critical information nor sensible behavioral guidance from authoritative sources. So, while it remains important to consider carefully what should be communicated (and when), it is essential not to underestimate citizens’ and stakeholders’ capacity to handle maximum transparency, as well as their appetite for receiving straightforward guidelines for keeping themselves safe.

What to do: focus on clear messages, credibility and care

Research suggests leaders would do well to abide by a few basic principles:

1. Crafting the message carefully
Creating an authoritative crisis narrative requires careful alignment between the intent (informing, exhorting, acknowledging), content (accuracy, plausibility, practicality), rhetoric (a judicious mix of factual, emotional and normative discourse) and dramaturgy (staging, scripting, sequencing) of crisis communication efforts

2. Integrate policy, operations and communications
Ensure robust discussion between policy strategists, frontline response leaders and communications experts in your crisis management teams. Keep communications staff in the decision loop; require policy and delivery staff to envisage the communications ramifications of their proposed courses of action. Steer all towards crafting a communication strategy that addresses not only the emergency at hand but also the long-term policy consequences that the crisis may cause.

3. Employ trusted sources
When institutional legitimacy and the authority of incumbent elites are being challenged, the focus of communication strategy should be to figure out ways to credibly convey urgent messages. Informal leaders and community allies may prove helpful in the crisis communication effort, either when formal leaders are momentarily besieged or to reach out to disengaged groups. Consider who are most likely to have the ear and the respect of target groups — sports heroes, revered elders, social influencers, business icons, clergymen — and recruit them to partake in a targeted effort.

4. Avoid too many talking heads
A crisis can only have so many formal leaders speaking on behalf of the response operation. Mixed messages emitted by too many talking heads cause confusion. A careful division of labor is in order, designing complementarity between politicians/CEOs, subject matter experts and operational response leaders. Top leadership should focus on framing the overall story of the crisis and providing normative and symbolic leadership, while technocrats are best placed to transmit factual and practical information regarding threats, hazards, response and recovery arrangements. Political crisis communication that gets out of step with expert communication is bound to be distrusted.

5. Be present, show you care and listen 
Distraught, disappointed and fearful people look for signals in every aspect of their leaders’ public performances. Heroic determination (‘we shall fight on the beaches’) is only one possible posture. There are other ways to address collective stress: projecting calm competence, humble empathy, sincere regret for prior missteps, and courageous transparency. What matters is how leaders perform "on-stage," how they position themselves, where they stand, who they meet, what they wear, where they appear. These are critical details that leaders should never disregard or leave up to chance. as each can support or undermine the meaning they seek to make of the crisis at hand.

Eric Stern is professor and 2019-2020 faculty chair at the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity, University at Albany (SUNY).

Allan McConnell is professor of Public Policy, Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney.

Arjen Boin is professor of Public Institutions and Governance, Department of Political Science, Leiden University.

Paul ‘t Hart is a professor of public administration at the Utrecht University School of Governance and the Netherlands School of Public Administration (NSOB) in The Hague.

This story has been republished with permission from the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). Read the complete series here.

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