In just seven days we have seen schools close, businesses shut their doors, employees working from home and restrictions on going outside our front door. It is hard to comprehend the enormity of the changes that are taking place to our lives. For those at the top of organisations and in leadership positions the pressure is intense. As well as understanding how things impact on the business and employees they also have to manage the impact on themselves personally.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has shown the way for many when she appeared online from home last week after putting her child to bed to do a Covid-19 question and answer session. She was able to be both authoritative about the situation and human. I have highlighted her communication style in one of the case studies in my book Crisis Communication Strategies.
The book has taken some time to come together and includes a whole chapter devoted to the importance of strong and effective leadership during a crisis. There are 10 leadership qualities that I identify need to be demonstrated during a crisis. I have copied a short section from the book below which may be helpful as we are start the second week of the national emergency. It covers the 10 qualities and a bit more about the first five.
Crisis leadership qualities
There are 10 key leadership qualities that need to be evidenced to support effective crisis communication. A leader who can demonstrate them all will put the organization in a more advantageous position, and this should be something that all those leading organizations are seeking to achieve.
The 10 qualities are:
9 Effective at communicating.
10 Skilful at managing expectations.
The world will be watching the leader of a business when it is affected by a crisis and everything they do and say will be analysed. Affected people, customers and those involved want to have the confidence that things are being effectively managed. Employees of the business want to feel they are being given support to do what is required to tackle the situation. All this requires the leader to be positive and to take people with them, creating an atmosphere where staff feel they will get through the challenging times. This can be achieved by the leader demonstrating that they are leading from the front, and they understand the impact of what staff are facing. A positive approach, where the leader also consistently appears to be unflustered by whatever twists and turns the crisis takes, will benefit everyone. It builds confidence and with that, employees will continue to do what is required, safe in the knowledge that it will move the organization and the situation forward.
The importance of having a clear and consistent narrative about the crisis that is understood across the business has been outlined in previous chapters. Consistency is an important way to build confidence in the response. The leader can achieve this by embodying the brand values of the business. Organizations can move away from the principles the business operates under when an issue or situation develops. This is the easy option and will require fewer difficult decisions to be made. However, it is when the organization is under pressure that it needs to stick closely to the vision and ethos that it stands for. This will be understood by employees and customers alike and gives them some certainty during the moments of pressure. If the leader at the top of the business is seen to embody the brand values, then others will follow, which will build consistency across the organization and most importantly within the communication as part of the response.
Responding to a crisis requires swift action, which means quick decisions need to be made. The leader needs to show they are in control and are comfortable to take those decisions that will put actions in place. This is not a time to waiver and appear nervous about the task that is ahead. It is why the leader needs to have been involved in the crisis planning so they are able to move quickly into taking a decisive role directing the response because they know the plan in detail. The response must be swift but never appear hurried because haste brings a flustered appearance and lack of control, and that in turn impacts on confidence. A true leader will be able to listen to advice and guidance that may be given by experts within the business and will show how they are using that guidance to inform the actions that are being taken. There is a careful balance that must be struck between being directive but also finding a way to be able to involve staff in the development of plans. It is particularly important for the leader to show they have listened to and heard the views of affected people, employees and members of the public. A failure to listen and ensure a course of action is in place will extend the lifetime of the crisis.
Historically, the public expectation of a CEO during a crisis was that they would show resilience, calm, and that they were taking action. These elements are all still important but alongside this there is an expectation of some humanity coming through the communication and activity. We can see the authentic and compassionate voice come through from New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the response to the terrorist attack in 2019, covered in the case study at the end of this chapter, or from the CEO of Alton Towers when the focus of his response was on those injured in the rollercoaster incident. People want to see that the emotion of the issue or incident has been understood right to the top of the organization. We see this in further detail in some of the case studies throughout this book, particularly Alton Towers, discussed in Chapter 8. When public statements are being made it is vital that they reflect an understanding of the human cost of the issue or incident. It also means that the leader needs to be able to show this visibly in the media interviews or any video that is undertaken. Without some emotion being evident the response will appear cold and impersonal. However, they should not be viewed as hysterical in their approach, which means another careful balancing act must be in place. CEOs should allow their human response to the issue or incident to assist in shaping the response, and if they do it with authenticity it will appear as an acceptable form of emotion. The CEO must be approachable, recognize the importance of the public response, and deal with things as a human being and not just the person in charge of the business.
A CEO that is not visible from the early stages of a crisis will be viewed as hiding from the problem, which will reflect on the organization’s response. As we have seen, a swift recognition that there is a crisis emerging or underway is vital to show situational awareness and increase confidence that action is being taken. This visibility needs to be in place throughout the duration of the crisis with the key groups that have been outlined in plans, both public and staff. It does create additional pressure on the CEO who is already facing a huge burden of responsibilities, but there are other aspects of the response that can be delegated to prioritize communication and being visible. The CEO must utilize methods of communication to show they are involved in the response, are directing events, but are also listening to views and meeting with those affected. If another senior manager is being used for communication that is fine, but at some point the CEO must be seen to speak. Face-to-face communication with key staff that have been affected or are heavily involved in the response is a vital part of the employee engagement work. The same is true for key external groups and individuals, including any victims, victims’ families, affected people, stakeholders and shareholders. It is an onerous task but one that is a key step towards effective crisis management and moving towards recovery. At the heart of the communication plan is that the CEO has a vital role as the face of the organization and must step up to do this at some point in the early stages of the crisis.
I hope this may be of some use or at least just give you some time away from the relentless pressure of work to think about things. If I can help get in touch. I will keep posting advice and guidance through my blog.
Stay indoors, stay safe and look after yourselves.