In this pandemic, R U OK? Here’s how to address emotions and grow communications and connections

It's an understatement to say 2020 has tested every corner of the globe. On R U OK Day, WE Communications' Siobhan Rennie examines the importance of engaging with the emotions that emerge during times of crisis and how proper management and team culture can see organisations thrive.

As we continue to shift the way we do business and live our lives in response to COVID-19, there remains a great deal of uncertainty.

We don’t know how long restrictions will remain. We don’t know how far-reaching the effects of the pandemic will be. And we’ve already been in this limbo for an extended period.

Nonetheless, we can be sure that life will be different, our ‘new normal’, for a fair while to come. And we know that throughout this time, while our communications may look different to usual, the fundamental principles have never been more important.

Clear communication has never been more critical, especially when we’re physically apart

Despite the uncertainty, or perhaps because of it, it is important that organisations continue to engage in the right way, with the right people, at the right time.

But what’s clear is that careful, early preparation has been hugely beneficial for businesses who have initiated critical incident planning, risk management processes, crisis communications strategies and robust media monitoring.

Enacting proactive and reactive communications, alongside continuous planning for the future, has been essential to maintaining business operations and reputation. Clear, calm and empathetic communication has created an environment that has meant these businesses are in a better position to manage the COVID situation effectively.

But we’ve also witnessed the opposite – where panicked, reactive, short-term thinking has jeopardised operations and reputations, led to negative media scrutiny, and jeopardised leaders’ best hopes.

The important thing to remember is that this is a very human experience​ – everyone is experiencing this pandemic personally and differently. In addition to rising expectations, your stakeholders – whether they be staff, customers, clients, partners, media or the community – are experiencing a range of emotions. Understanding these, and factoring them into communication strategies, is vital to managing any given situation.

Whether you think a stakeholder’s response to a situation is reasonable or not, understanding what is driving it can inform how to engage.​ For example, the fear of the unknown may mean that someone acts in an extreme or irrational way to avoid the perceived threat.

The way to address that fear is to provide a sense of safety. By directly addressing the fear, you moderate the reaction, and create a more manageable environment.​ Clearly, safety has to be genuine, so needs to be supported with how and why you’re able to assure them.​ Providing more detailed information, where possible, will lead to positive responses, and could help you turn a threat into a positive reinforcement of your purpose – and therefore, your reputation.

It’s also worth considering the following:

Be timely and lead with purpose. Combat the general chaos abounding with clear communication. People want to be kept informed with information that is conveyed with purpose and empathy.​ Focus on messages that are timely and transparent, in a tone that is clear, unambiguous and empathetic​. Talk to them about: what you are doing to help them / their families​ / the community, and how you are looking after your employees​. And provide reassurance and that you’re listening and responding ​

Lead from the front. People want to be included and to see action. They are looking for leadership and direction from those with authority.​

In addition to managing the day-to-day, lead with vision and show people what they can look forward to at the end of tunnel. Communicate with respect, and in a relatable way.

​Look at new ways to create value for and connect with your people, clients and stakeholders, and anticipate changes to your workforce and service requirements.

Consider the best medium and how to engage your community right now, bearing in mind they are of all ages and have preferred communication channels. ​

Support a positive risk culture. The risk of critical issues and negative headlines will always exist, particularly in certain sectors. However, you can address this with good planning.

How can you support a positive risk culture, where risk is expected, identified early, assessed and acted on?​

Put in place risk management, critical incident and crisis communications planning. And rehearse your response to crisis and issues by running live mock crisis scenario training or similar.

In our experience, almost always, the escalation of an issue to full-blown crisis could have been avoided or managed better through planned communication. Clear, transparent, authentic communications that help allay people’s fears or concerns have never been more important or necessary.

Siobhan Rennie is Head of Corporate – Sydney at WE Communications.


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