Let’s Keep Talking
7 Apr 2020 by Steven Giannoulis
The value of communicating in uncertain times
It’s human nature. It’s how we cope with uncertainty. In the absence of real information we use our judgement to fill in the missing gaps. And we look for clues that help us feel comfortable to make these judgement calls.
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 the news sources. Often these are inaccurate, one-sided or highly influenced by their own circumstances. 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 now this. 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 connecting 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 reassurance and clarity our audiences need.
I suppose the cutting back on communicating reflects a leader's own uncertainty. 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 doing all you can.
My adage is, whatever is happening around us, let’s just keep talking.
Keep talking to staff.
You're working hard to reduce expenses and to manage 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 reassure where you can, for example, “If we have to take action, 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.” Over time you will build trust, which helps reduce uncertainty. It also makes it easier if you have to deliver worse news later.
Keep talking to customers.
Many of us have seen our customers pull back on spending – either by choice or because circumstances don’t allow them to spend. 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.
How you engage with your customers over this period will determine how quickly you bounce back when things return to normal, whatever that new version normal is.
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 they’ll never see their money again. Or if they do, it will take many years until its back at the value it had before.
Without counter-information to what’s in the news and on their social feed, many will panic and pull out of their investment. 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 these tough times. They communicate effectively, build trust and help their staff, customers and investors manage their uncertainty.
While I don’t fully agree with all the actions of our Government over the current situation, I do think our Prime Minister has shown her leadership qualities. She, more than any of us, is dealing with uncertainty and a mountain of conflicting information. Throughout, she’s communicated openly, with clarity, and always with authenticity and empathy. Even as things are changing, Jacinda is the communication example we should all be aspiring to.