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Crisis Comms and the Art of Dancing with Elephants

Article by Hugh Scholey, Managing Director of Big Red Oak


You are being communicated to a lot lately.

By you, I mean we. And I really mean the royal we, including Harry and Megan, and Hans and Mary, and Hakeem and Madhu. All of us.

It is fair to say people are distracted. It happens whenever the fight or flight response is activated. Reliable facts inform decisions that directly affect individuals’ wellness, as the security and normality of life becomes abnormal, unstable and confusing.

It’s like walking a tightrope with a dancing elephant.

Clarity and context

Clarity of communications has become paramount during the pandemic. The context in which reliable facts are presented shapes how information is acted upon by the masses. In turn, how the masses behave directly affects individuals’ wellness. And, again in turn, individuals’ wellness affects the medical system’s ability to cope.

In the current state of affairs, many professions are crucial to maintaining the balance of wellness and safety, and each profession deserves recognition. For today, let’s consider the people who choose the words that must cut through confusion, create clarity, and instill confidence. These are the professional communicators or the government public relations people (sometimes referred to as flacks or spin doctors if aspersions are being cast).

They write the government statements, and draft the messages that political and medical leaders deliver. Yes, they are good with words, but they are much more than that. To say a communications professional is good with words is like saying a doctor is good with Band-Aids.

Plan for the worst

Communication in a time of crisis requires planning, precision and promise.

Presenting precise information and guidance to the public on how to behave during crises instills confidence. That’s why governments and corporations all have communications plans prepared for any crisis imaginable.

Except few people could have imagined the current crisis, with its devastating impact, or its potential to last for months to years. That is why the best communicators in this crisis have been honest about what is known, what is unknown, and what is an educated guess. If information is lacking, then the communications should err on the side of caution. This is why people are being told to stay home.

Within the communications industry, professionals were quick to recognize this crisis as a different beast due to its scope and many unknowns. No one working in communications today has ever dealt with an issue of this magnitude. Wise communications planning under these circumstances requires a full understanding of the issues in play, the implications of taking action or failing to act, and then drafting the language that must be both clear and understandable for everyone to act on.

Truth be told

Actions speak louder than words, so it’s important for leadership to over-communicate during a crisis. It is better to promise the people they’ll hear from its leaders every day, even if it’s only to say there isn’t much new information.

Tell the people the truth, admit to difficulties, and explain the timelines for solutions. It is better to have leaders doing their best and talking openly about challenges, than to be a leader who hides the truth. If you insult the intelligence of the people or hide from them, you lose their trust.

The good news is that Canadian communicators at all levels of government are doing their jobs well. So yes, you are being communicated to a lot lately. That’s the way it should be.

Keep listening.