Communicating in Crisis

Since September 11, people are talking more. In the workplace; in their homes; with their friends; and with strangers.I fly a lot-I’m one of those road warriors who routinely logs in excess of 100,000 miles each year and working on my second million miles with United Airlines. Since the 11th, I’ve been to Paris France, New York, San Francisco and Portland via the airlines, not to mention driving from Orlando and to Sioux Falls and Kansas City. Friends routinely ask me, “Are you afraid to fly now?” My answer is no.

One captain on a recent flight welcomed passengers on board and preceded to say that the FAA was still working on “policy” as how to handle any problems, i.e.-future hijackings. He said that until something was handed down, he had a few suggestions. First of all, there are usually 200 passengers on a plane, a far greater number than one to four terrorists. With that in mind, if anything . . . anyone, begins to act out, be disruptive or threatening, he wanted all the passengers to immediately start tossing pillows, blankets, purses, briefcases, you name it . . .if it can be lifted, heave it at the person(s). He felt certain that that actively alone would pretty much squelch an aggressive posturing and enable a few of the passengers to knock down or restrain the antagonist until the pilots could notify the control towers and land.

With that said, he asked everyone to look around, introduce themselves to their immediate seat neighbors. We would be a quasi-family for the next few hours and we needed to make the best of it. Everyone understood what he said, and why he said it.

A New Challenge
Today more than ever, crises abound. Our nation faces a challenge like none other. And so do many companies. The events of September 11th have bred fear into the very fabric of us all.

How should you respond? What should you say not only to rally people around a common cause, but also to quell fears, ease concerns, and bring employees together? The captain on the plane eased apprehension and brought the passengers together. When President Bush addressed the world, he said, “Either you are with America or you are with the terrorists.” New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke at the United Nations and said, “In your heart, you can’t be neutral on terrorism. You are either for it, or against it.”

Each communicated a vision, and effectively motivated others-passengers, citizens-Congress, and the world-to come together for the common good. The words that you elect to choose to covey your message can make you or break you. They can make the difference between advancing and retreating, between motivation and stalling, and between growth and prosperity or decline and possibility going out of business.

Credibility Counts
Trust is not created overnight. There are a few things that you can do to kick start it.

Admit what you don’t know. No one knows everything. If you don’t know the answer when queried, say so . . . and tell the questioner that you will seek an answer and get back to him.

Accept responsibility and be accountable for your decisions and actions. If you have bad news, believe me, most know-they have a feeling-that it’s coming. Don’t shirk around it, people get more upset. Hard decisions are hard because they impact others, sometimes negatively. If you have control over a decision, say so.

Be complete. Statements that are incomplete only fuel the rumor mill. Tell the truth, the whole truth. Anything else will lead to false conclusions.

Show compassion and concern. We are all in the same boat. Let your employees and co-workers know that you share their fears and concerns and that you understand their feelings. If others don’t feel your concern, they won’t hear your words.

What’s Your Specifics?
Before September 11th, too many people practiced the art of vagueness-no commitments if at all possible and dodging any type of specific in the form of self-protection. In the speech of his life, President Bush laid out specifics-the creation of a Homeland Security Office that will lead, oversee and coordinate a comprehensive national strategy to safeguard the country; air marshals on domestic flights, and he asked us all to hug our kids and stay calm and resolute, even in the face of a continuing threat.

What happens when you don’t know what your actions will be in a crisis (or have a speech writer to help you outline them)? Your employees and co-workers will applaud you for being upfront that you don’t have a clear-cut solution or plan . . .yet. You must, though, be clear about the steps that you are taking, and will take, to determine your plans and the probing of the situation.

The bottom line is that credibility counts-yours. When the rumor mill and grapevine are in high gear, it says that there is a lack of trust. Employees question the “official word” and begin to probe and dig until they find the “real story.” If trust and credibility doesn’t exist between you and your employees, communications-in the good and not-so-good time-won’t be effective. Everyone loses.

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