ITL #394 - Ripping up the old rulebook: leadership at a time of crisis

4 weeks, 1 day ago


Communicators need to focus more on business strategy, creating employee advocates and managing the consequences of business decision making. By Amanda Coleman.

Leadership is a critical ingredient for effective crisis communication. This year has shown that the requirements from leaders has changed. Before covid-19 a chief executive would have to think about whether to apologise for what had happened, and how to get the business back on track. The qualities that both employees and the public want now go way beyond that. The expectation is that there will be empathy, understanding, compassion and authenticity.

It is a fundamental shift from being a slick media interviewer to being obviously affected by what has happened. For those supporting and training leaders to communicate there is a lot to do. It is time to rip up the media training presentations and start again.

This is not a time for presentation training but for redefining the qualities required from leaders. Communicators can be, and I believe should be, the people to help this transition to happen.

Leadership qualities for 2020 and beyond

In a crisis there are 10 ways that a leader needs to behave to support the effective response. These are:

  1. Motivating – they have to be able to bring people together to work through the crisis
  2. Consistent – their actions should back up what they are saying
  3. Decisive – they should gather information and make decisions
  4. Compassionate – it is a time to show you understand what people are experiencing
  5. Visible – both to employees and people who are affected
  6. Ethical – it should be clear that decisions are made in a transparent and open way
  7. Resilient – they have to be able to absorb the pressure and be able to continue
  8. Responsible – it is for them to be in charge of the response
  9. Effective communicators – this means being trained, ready and comfortable with communication before any crisis happens
  10. Skilful at management expectations – it means balancing competing views and perspectives to negotiate the way forward

You could argue that these are qualities that have always been required from leaders when a crisis emerged. The situation is changing swiftly since the emergence of covid-19. Having the trust and confidence of people living in a country is now an essential. It is no longer just important to secure re-election, it is now critical to saving lives. Being heard as a leader is tough when people have had their lives turned upside down. Confidence will only come when the 10 qualities are obvious and being demonstrated on a daily basis.

Who does it well

Those showing a new style of leadership through this crisis include the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern. She has received significant amounts of praise for the way she has operated, from taking swift and decisive action to being a real person when she was talking to children about the Easter bunny. The same cannot be said of leaders both in the UK and USA where there has been confusion, uncertainty and inaction that has led to a distrust of those in positions of power.

The same can be seen in the way businesses have operated. British Airways were heavily criticised for the way they used the economic impact of the pandemic to drive through changes to employee contracts. The communication was insensitive and spoke of the needs of the business above those of the people affected. Other examples include JD Weatherspoons, a UK pub chain, who in the early days of the pandemic told employees to go and find other jobs.

What it boils down to is a need to have empathy but most importantly to be authentic in what you say and what you do. Being an expert in business is not enough anymore. This means the world of corporate communication needs to change.

Communicating the future

The role of the communicator has transformed throughout this pandemic. It is now being seen as a vital strand of the business strategy. In a world of uncertainty the corporate communication professional can help business to navigate the turbulent waters. But in the same way that business leaders need to change so to do the communicators working with them. This is no longer about promoting a business or product and is now about defining business strategy, creating employee advocates and managing the consequences of business decision making.

Being comfortable in talking about managing risks, building resilience and ethical reputation management is vital for a successful future. It is time to talk the language of business when defining, developing and delivering communication.

If we are living with covid-19 then being able to identify risks, put mitigation in place and to effectively manage a crisis will be essential in the toolkit of all communicators. And even if the world is lucky enough to find a way to defeat the virus, the experience has shown how vital it is to understand and be able to deliver crisis communication. We need to see business continuity as more than just putting a tick in a box. We have to build systems and processes that will build risk and crisis management into our day-to-day communication activity.

This may seem like an extreme step for PR professionals who are focusing on developing campaigns to support products, goods and services. It is the right step. The pandemic has shown there is a vital requirement for businesses and individuals to be more resilient. That starts with understanding the situations, risks and issues as well as developing plans to be ready to respond.

Navigating the coming months

This has been a year that has put immense pressure on people as well as businesses, governments and organisations. Communicators can do three things to help them find a way forward in the challenging months ahead.

Firstly, ensure your change communication knowledge and skills are in place. After this global crisis will come significant change and the ability to communicate effectively through it is vital. If you feel this is an area of weakness, do something about it now or make sure you can bring in a change communication expert to support your business.

Secondly, deliver honest assessments about the situation to leaders. Be able to explain what is required from them and support them as they are forced to develop new skills and qualities. When they operate in a way that will damage confidence speak up. It is a time to be able to challenge in an appropriate way. Use your relationships to make this easier to achieve.

Thirdly, and finally, remember that what is important in life, in society, to communication and at a time of crisis is people. If your work is focused on the real human impact of what is taking place then you will make better decisions. Whether it is developing the business as we are living with covid-19 or changing business process to be more resilient, ensure you are doing it with people at the forefront of your decision-making.

Leadership and communication could come through this turbulent and unsettling time in a stronger and more evolved position ready for whatever lies ahead.


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The Author

Amanda Coleman

Amanda Coleman, Director of Amanda Coleman Communications Ltd, has spent over 20 years helping police and civic leaders respond to some of the UK’s biggest crisis incidents and sustained reputational attacks. She is author of Crisis Communication Strategies and former head of corporate communication for Greater Manchester Police.

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