Let's get talking again.

7 Sep 2021 by Steven Giannoulis

Speech bubble neon

In April last year, when we were into lockdown for the first time, I wrote this article about the value of continuing to communicate in uncertain times. I lamented how little we learn as leaders about the need to manage uncertainty through good communication. Nearly, 18-months on, and in lockdown again, I find myself again worrying about the state of communications. In response I’ve repurposed and updated the original article in a hope that it offers some further guidance the second time round.

In the absence of real information we all use our judgement to extrapolate what we know to fill in the missing gaps. This is exaggerated in heightened uncertainty, like we have now. We’re all struggling to process what is happening and to see a way forward. In the absence of the concrete information, we look for clues that can act as proxies. Unfortunately, the loudest sources are most often family, friends and colleagues, social media and news media. Often these are inaccurate, one-sided or highly influenced by their own circumstances or perspectives.

The news at the moment is mostly negative which means that our ability to come to conclusions, other than negative ones, is limited. In the absence of any other reliable information, our staff, our customers and our investors are using the news and social media to shape their perceptions, their judgement and their actions.

So why aren’t good leaders stepping up their communications in tough times? They leave the rhetoric to others and in doing so, allow others to influence how their staff, customers and investors see them. I’ve been a marketer for over 30 years including the ’87 crash, the middle-east wars, the GFC and others. It still surprises me how little we learn. In all those situations my managers cut back on communication activity. I know the reduce discretionary spend argument well but good communication doesn’t need to cost big money. In fact, a simple but authentic personal call or email beats any expensive, yet impersonal, mass campaign any day.

Good leaders show their leadership qualities in uncertain times more than ever. Most often it’s through their ability to communicate openly and honestly and with real empathy. In the absence of real information, this is often all the connection, reassurance and clarity we all need. 

I suppose the cutting back on communication often reflects a leader's own uncertainty about what to say. Yes, our audiences would love you to give them more certainty if you can, but they also understand when you can’t. In current times, everything is uncertain except your ability to listen, to empathise, to reassure and to demonstrate you’re doing all you can. Your audiences aren’t necessarily looking to you for answers, just a reliable source of truth and a sense that you are listening and doing all you can.

My adage is, whatever is happening around us, let’s just keep talking.

Keep talking to staff.

Like many businesses, you don’t know what the impact of the latest lockdown may be so you’re working hard to manage expenses and to monitor revenue and cashflow. Stop for a moment and think about it from your staff’s perspective. What are the messages you are sending about the survival of the business? They are not only worried about the business but also their mortgage, their family and their future. They're looking to you for understanding and for reassurance. 

All it takes is a meeting, an email or a phone call to openly and honestly outline where things are at and what you are doing about it. Acknowledge the situation and how they (and you) are feeling. Be honest about the uncertainty, the future options and how you’ll go about making decisions. Provide reassurance where you can, for example, “If we have to take action, they’ll be no surprises, we’ll give you as much notice as we can.”  Find ways to connect with your staff regularly and open yourself up for them to contact you. Create channels for them to support each other and actively promote the support channels available to them.

Communicate regularly, even if it’s small developments or “no change.” Saying little is definitely preferred over silence. Over time you will build trust, which helps reduce uncertainty and makes it easier if you have to deliver worse news later. 

Keep talking to customers.

Many of us have seen some of our customers pull back on spending. Don’t push for sales but communicate gently and often. Acknowledge the circumstances, empathise with them and the challenges they are facing. Add value to them any way you can through regular information, advice, support and alternatives that meet their needs. 

Again, communicate regularly and in a supportive way and focus on what they need. If you operate in B2B environments, go further by finding ways to support your customers to connect with their customers. What we learnt last year was that how you engage with your customers over this period will determine how quickly you bounce back when things return to a more normal state. 

Keep talking to investors.

Investment decisions have always been driven by sentiment. Yes, there are facts and figures but they all look backwards. We invest based on what we think the future looks like.

In the current environment, it’s not unrealistic for investors to feel nervous. Without counter-information to what’s in the news and on their social feed, many will panic and make rash investment decisions. Every day of further bad economic news makes this more likely.

So don’t wait till the next annual report to let them know how you are going. Find ways to proactively get in touch with them. Be open about the impact of what’s happening on the business. More importantly, show them what you're doing to help the business survive, to support your staff and customers and to protect their investment. 

Good leaders shine in tough times. They are dealing with their own uncertainty and a mountain of ever-changing, and often conflicting, information. Throughout, they go on the front-foot, always communicating openly, authentically, with clarity, and with empathy. Their effective communications build trust and help their staff, customers and investors manage their uncertainty. Ultimately, the quality of their communications helps their business get through tough times better prepared for what’s on the other side.