Communicating through uncertainty

James Walker
Executive Director – Sustainability

As further COVID-19 cases were revealed yesterday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, “This is not a time for panic. It is a time for preparation. I ask everyone that they think about that for them and their family.”

In New Zealand, we’re rallying to protect our most vulnerable by stemming the prospect of community transmission. In doing so, most of us are prepared to play our part, and live differently for the time being. This has been described by the PM, as the new-normal.

The ‘new normal’ means an ever-evolving global context, and regular updates to our response at home.

During unsettling periods, people crave trusted information. It’s human to want to understand the cause of what is happening and find out what we need to do to keep our friends and family safe.

As providers of employment, and vital goods and services, business have a responsibility to communicate with certainty, even when the outlook is so uncertain. Businesses can help their people and customers navigate the coming months, with calm and confidence.

Here are some principles to communicating well in precarious times:

Own the uncertainty. When talking about your business’s response to the virus and the economic consequences, be honest about what is known, what is unknown and explain what you’re doing next.  

Outline your approach. Businesses cannot predict the future; however, you can communicate how your organisation will approach its decision-making. It will be reassuring for people to know that your organisation believes: 

  • people come first
  • public health is paramount
  • New Zealand will get through this

However, you must also back your values and principles with action. There may be tough decisions to make, but it’s the way you approach these decisions that will make the difference.

Say something, even if you don’t know everything. When it comes to crisis, the biggest mistake is to say nothing, while you wait for clarity to re-emerge. This lets others fill the void with rumours and mischief. Instead, communicate proactively and consistently. 

Take responsibility for speaking the truth: Rely on trusted and credible sources of information for your decision-making and communications. Double check. Don’t spread misinformation.

Provide a single source of truth. Develop a single set of messages – one source of truth. From there, tell the same story to your teams, customers and stakeholders. There may be some nuance, but the story should fundamentally be the same. This reduces the risk of stoking unnecessary confusion.

Listen. When responding to a crisis it is easy to get transfixed by what you need to do inside your organisation and lose sight of the public’s expectations of your organisation. Listen to what your people, customers and government are telling you. Take that on board and respond accordingly. This doesn’t mean doing everything that is asked of you, but it does mean give these voices weight, so you make good decisions.

Be deliberate with your tone. In all your communications think about your tone. How you say things in times of crisis, can be as important as what you say. You want to express your messages in a way that is unifying, calm and confident.

While these are difficult and ever-changing times, what we can control is how we face up to these challenges. Be kind and inspire resilience.