Last updated: Black swan communications: Messaging with impact during a crisis

Black swan communications: Messaging with impact during a crisis


We’re in extreme and unusual times. Over the next few weeks and months we’re likely to experience and witness mass lay-offs, business collapses, personal crises, and black swan events that will forever change how we do business and interact as a global society. How do we begin communicating about this, let alone messaging with impact?

I never expected to write that kind of paragraph. Even now I wonder whether I’m over-reacting.

But it seems that this is an existential threat; something that none of us in this generation has ever encountered. At this stage there’s no rule book, no great blog with all the answers, no post on Google that will nail it – there’s only a sensible and considered approach based on our experience and knowledge as leaders and communicators.

How companies – and leaders – respond and communicate in this crisis will inform their legacy and reputation for years.

Communication is critical; more so than ever before. I can’t promise I have all of the answers – none of us can – but I’m sharing some guidance and examples of how others are speaking to their people, their clients, and their broader stakeholders during this challenging time.

Please feel free to chime in with guidance, advice, and support – let’s face it – we all need it.

Messaging with impact: First, set up your communications team

For larger organizations, you’ll likely already have your comms team and a strategy in place, but no-one can claim to have the experience of responding to a pandemic like the coronavirus. However, when structuring your core team to assure you’ll be messaging with impact, think about the following points:

  1. Meet regularly: Virtual will be the norm for most as we move into the next stage of the spread of COVID-19. I’ve been meeting each day with my senior team to discuss coronavirus for more than three weeks now and managing a considered cascade of messaging to our team across multiple digital channels, and in person.
  2. Take a 360-degree view: Think around all the issues for your business, team, and clients – each time you meet. Put yourself in their shoes to help calibrate your messages. What questions will people be asking? If there are multiple streaming issues, what’s the next, most imminent, that you need to communicate on? Balance honest realism and pragmatism with nuance and compassion.
  3. Think a few steps ahead: We can’t know what’s around the corner, but many of us can anticipate how this pandemic will impact our businesses. Be swift and considered in your decisions and try to pre-empt questions where you can.
  4. Establish a regular pulse of comms: Look for help where you can if you don’t have a dedicated communications team. Seek volunteers or reach out to your network to try to find guidance.
  5. Communicate your plan: Many businesses and companies have chosen to move ahead of the government’s guidance – this is an opportunity to show decisive action as a leader and to lead from the front with your own plan and approach.

Communicate regularly and routinely

When thinking about messaging with impact, remember, your teams, shareholders, and clients will be looking to you for clear, open communication. In this situation, make sure you’re communicating more, not less.

Be on the front foot where you can, anticipating the next challenge for the business and building a response in advance:

Increase the cadence of your communications: If you currently message once a week as a CEO, increase that, or even consider daily comms if your organization or business is particularly badly hit. Be regular and timely with the delivery. This will minimize questions and uncertainty among all stakeholders.

Create content: Update your website – consider having a section on your front page or clearly marked. Deliver clear and sensible information about how you are responding as an organization. You cannot answer everyone’s questions, but do what you can to work through FAQs and obvious concerns of clients and stakeholders.

Live updates: Create a live document that can be shared and kept open with regular updates on your business response – you might choose to share this with your wider stakeholders. Be as transparent as you can be, but cautious where required. Alternatively, create a blog page that you regularly update with information for key stakeholders.

Cascade your comms: Create a team that can cascade down your information and share it to distributed networks and remote teams. Do you have WhatsApp groups you can create, or ambassadors who can help to disseminate messages to those people and staff who might not be able to access your website or traditional comms?

Create bullet point guidance: If you have a distributed management team or workforce who have to share messaging verbally to large groups or teams, then supply crib sheets or bullet points to guide them on what to say. This will ensure there is a consistent message to all teams around your organization and that misinformation and rumors will not spread.

Share health guidance: Share with your internal teams the details of where they can find up to date and fact-based health information. This will help to quash rumors and avoid the sharing of false reports on social media. Use the WHO for health information, the World Economic Forum’s COVID Action Platform, or WEF Agenda for business impact and context.

Comms for all stakeholders must be refined when messaging for impact

As you develop or refine your plan, break out each of your separate audiences to ensure your messaging takes into account their particular concerns or needs; everyone in your business community will be feeling the pressure in different ways – some personal, some professional.

Your messages to staff will differ – in detail terms – from those that you disseminate for stakeholders or suppliers, for instance.

  • Be agile: This is a fast-moving situation. In your live document, map each of your audiences and agree on key messages for all, along with the associated regularity of comms.
  • Tune in to specific needs: What cultural issues, or language issues should you be mindful of? Think through how each of your messages will land with your target audience.
  • Demonstrate action: You might not have all, or any, of the answers at this stage, but tell people that you’re working to find solutions. As you craft your messages, ensure they are direct and clear, but don’t lose touch of the need for empathy. “I know the COVID-19 pandemic is concerning for all of us,” writes HP CEO Antonio Neri on LinkedIn. “I am working closely Hewlett Packard Enterprise leaders to ensure we are responding quickly and keeping our team members, customers, and partners safe.”

This shows action, and compassion – both of which are desperately needed in times such as these.

Finding the right tone: Stay human 

We’re all in this together, and many people are struggling with a range of issues – they might be worried about their jobs, their family, their future, isolation. As Brené Brown wrote on LinkedIn: “Fear and anxiety can drive us to become very self-focused. This global pandemic is a real case of “getting sick together” or “staying well together.””

  1. Say how you feel: Anxiety is a big issue in this situation for all of us – I know I’m feeling anxious, and many more people will feel the same. Don’t be afraid to share that message – we are all human.
  2. Use compassionate language: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella uses emphatic and human language in his LinkedIn post: “We deeply consider the effect on people in our communities in every decision we make.”
  3. Plug into your vulnerability: Calibration of your messaging to people who might be suffering or anxious is critical. If you know this is not your strong point, bring a team member in to support you with reviewing messaging to ensure it will resonate with stakeholders. “Stay safe, stay well, and take care,” Alan Jope, chief executive of Unilever, reportedly wrote in his email to staff working remotely.
  4. Step up: Many businesses are struggling, or will struggle, in the next few weeks and months. Many will go out of business. If you can step up and demonstrate in your communications AND actions that you have a true sense of purpose as a business, then this will build enduring trust.

Microsoft has donated $1million to a regional COVID-19 Response Fund in Seattle, an area already greatly impacted by the virus. President Brad Smith wrote: “As our community focuses on public health needs during the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s important that we also rally together to address the unmet economic needs developing around us.”

Establish or improve your systems

In addition to business continuity messaging to your teams and your public-facing messaging to clients and partners that might be on your website, you’ll need a range of other communication outlets to deliver key messages and allow your own teams to communicate with each other.

Messaging with impact during crisis: 

  • Define your systems: Find a system to share instant notifications and urgent messages to your core teams that doesn’t necessarily rely on email – group chat, IM, or Slack can help speed up the sharing of business-critical or health alerts.
  • Have a channel plan: Establish a plan about how to use each channel – one channel might be operational, another for sharing documents, another for instant engagement and group chat, for instance.
  • Broaden your channel approach: Ideally try to share your messages across multiple channels to reach as many as your stakeholders as possible.
  • Simplify content development: Create templates that you can update easily for your social media channels with updated notices or information.
  • Use a range of formats: Consider what is most effective and most straightforward in terms of format in this type of crisis. Many business leaders are using fast-turnaround, simple video on social media channels to communicate clearly and directly to their people. Video can help build a quick connection and is the most shareable form of media.
  • Ensure there’s a release valve: Leaders must message from the top that letting off steam, or “socializing virtually” whilst WFH is necessary. We have set up a couple of Facebook Workplace channels to enable our team members to family photos and non-business related comments, for instance.

Messaging with impact 101: Communicate your plan for the future

Whilst we are in the eye of the storm it may feel challenging – or inappropriate – to consider the longer term. This is the time for a considered balance in your comms. It’s important that your people know you’re still planning sensibly for the future – and flexing with the current situation – to ensure the long term of your business is secure.

Be explicit and clear: “Our top priority is keeping our employees, customers, and other stakeholders safe while doing whatever is reasonable to keep Ford running,” Ford senior managers have told staff in an email. This balances the focus of attention now, with the needs of the business in the long term.

Lean on your network and share: Give and help where you can. Paul Daugherty, group Chief Executive at Accenture has reached out to his fellow techies on LinkedIn: “YOU are essential in assuring success of the mission-critical systems and data that power businesses, governments and keep our world running. YOU can/must lead.” He signs off: “We need you. And we need to rely on each other.”

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