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Communicating in Times of Crisis

Five Proven Tenets

By The Hon. David Pratt
Principal – David Pratt and Associates


COVID-19 has run like a shockwave through communities, including the business community. It has left organizations of all sizes little time to ensure their businesses and their most precious resources – their employees – are positioned to weather the crisis. Organizations must be prepared to make timely decisions to protect the health of their employees and clients with minimal disruption to operations. Owners and managers must lead their workforce through this period of uncertainty.

Operational challenges presented by COVID-19 require a nuanced approach to leading a workforce. First, follow all advice given by public health officials, both nationally and locally. Ensure that employees are aware of the public advice and that clients understand you are following it. Constant and effective communication means that you are in a position to move along with an evolving situation as smoothly as possible.

Although it may seem like we have been practicing physical distancing forever, these are early days. There is still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19 and its longer term impact. It is clear that all organizations have a responsibility to communicate clearly with their workforce during the outbreak and over the course of its longer term effects. Communication based on transparency builds trust in the workplace, a value that starts internally and can then be extended to clients.

Our top five proven tenets of communicating with employees through this crisis and future ones:

1. COVID-19 is unique, but every crisis is unique. In an evolving and fluid situation and with any public health crisis there is plenty of information being published. This can be over- whelming. When you communicate, don’t leave room for ambiguity.

In the case of COVID-19, increase the level of understanding of health risks and promote the steps that protect employee wellbeing. For example, provide clear instructions for employees who suspect they have been exposed to COVID-19 in a clear and supportive manner.

There is an enormous amount of information available on the virus in varying degrees of reliability. In communicating with your team, stick to facts. Repeat the Public Health advice on how to stay safe—in this case, wash hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, cough into a sleeve or elbow, practice physical distancing and stay isolated if you feel unwell. Underscore your organization’s commitment to public health practices, and urge employees and clients to cooperate as well. In this way, leaders model best practices and encourage social leadership.

2. Be as open and empathetic as possible. Employees need to know that their leadership – owners and managers – genuinely care about their situations. Do not shy away from the truth or hide facts. Employees are looking to their employers for direction and leadership. By embodying honest, direct and empathetic leadership, you can strengthen the trust in your organization even in times of great uncertainty.

3. Communicate with employees frequently and monitor daily updates from local, national and global authorities. Let employees know where they can access reliable sources on precautionary measures and health advisories from trusted sources. Tackle misinformation if you can, to avoid sensationalist stories and debunk any fake news reports that are circulating. Consistent, cogent and coherent communication that reinforces positive measures individuals and organizations can take to mitigate the effects of a crisis is both reassuring and another means for business leaders to practice social leadership.

4. Distribute trusted information across a diverse range of channels. Consider your workforce’s geographic locations and potentially diverse needs and tailor your advice and distribution accordingly. This recognition that a workforce is not necessarily a homogeneous entity and has different needs and different capabilities builds trust and makes communication much more effective.

5. Communications should be coordinated with key members of your internal senior leadership. Striking a task force with this group to specifically address a crisis can make it easier to achieve the right balance between providing what is necessary for employees to know, and what could spread unnecessary alarm. Leadership is not only about saying the right thing at the right time, but about saying the right things in the right way to get things done. In any crisis, it is important that leaders are listened to. Clear communication is the best way to grow trust and demonstrate leadership. A pessimist complains about the wind. An optimist expects it to change. A leader adjusts the sails.

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