Leaders, regardless of their title or talents, are the “helpers” that Mr. Fred Rogers refers to in a crisis. Famous for his wisdom in interpreting the world for children on his PBS series “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood,” he said his mother would tell him when he was scared as a boy, “Always look for the helpers. There’s always someone who is trying to help.” He did and said he was comforted knowing the world is full of people who are ready to help when things go wrong.1
While Rogers’ advice was for children, there is another message in these words. Consider that Rogers’ mother likely gave him this advice in the 1930s and 1940s when the country faced difficulties similar to those we suddenly find ourselves amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Tragedy at that time included illness and death, natural disasters, economic despair, and global unrest. As adults, we are shaken by these complicated and scary things too. Yet, unlike young children, we have a great opportunity and the responsibility to be the helpers, in whatever definition of the role that may be. It is our job to create a safer, healthier, more prosperous, and all-around better world. Instead of being bystanders, we are called as leaders to be the helpers for ourselves and others. Serving as the guide for people through a crisis is also on our shoulders. The number one tool we have for this job is communication.
Regardless of whether working directly in fields involved in a community crisis such as emergency response, health care, and civic service, this pandemic has shown us that leaders in every sector are impacted. From grocery store shift managers to small businesses, bankers, entertainers, librarians, and community developers, leaders are expected to deliver appropriate, frequent, and effective messaging. The purpose of crisis communications is to provide the people involved and affected with the information needed to make the right decisions and do the right things during an unexpected and threatening situation.
Crisis communications have several phases that parallel the phases of the crisis itself.2 Even though we are well past the beginning stages of COVID-19, reviewing first steps now can help assess how well things went. At the onset, the first step would have been to pull out your crisis response and communications plan and take a moment to review it. The purpose of this type of plan is to guide leaders and their communication support team to align messaging and people to the overall strategy, values, and vision. If you don’t have a crisis response plan, don’t feel alone. A study by Deloitte found what they call a “crisis of confidence” after interviewing more than 300 leaders from around the world. Approximately 82% and up to 91% in life sciences and health care said they felt confident that their organizations are crisis-ready, yet “fewer than half had crisis playbooks ready to use, and one-third don’t even know if they do.”
Regardless of the statistics and your specific situation, the onset of a crisis is not the time to labor at creating a detailed plan. Considering the speed at which information spreads today, what leaders need is a simple set of guidelines for you and your team to follow. The best thing to do is take a brief moment to collect your thoughts, gather as much information as possible, jot down the relevant facts and your mission statement. Keep your notes handy for maintaining consistency in your communication efforts and remember that your words matter. Following are a few other key elements of a successful crisis response effort.
Appoint your team – In communities, just as most large organizations, a multi-functional leadership team is helpful. Crises also require a team effort to communicate effectively and efficiently. There should be one spokesperson who is trained and experienced in how to navigate and respond to crisis communication needs. This leader should be available, timely, and well-spoken.3
Be quick to respond – A near-immediate response is needed. You may be tempted to wait for the perfect message, but people aren’t looking for perfection yet. They need to know they aren’t alone, and someone is at the helm working to figure out what is happening and what is next. Risk-taking and action are essential even if minor mistakes are made.
Acknowledge the situation – “No comment” is not an option whether talking with one employee, a group, or through the media to the general public. Leaders are expected to be decisive and swift action with a dynamic personality of integrity that followers can trust. People need the steadying comfort of direction and guidance when they are amid shock, awe, and the emotional and intellectual numbness that can sometimes immobilize them. Depending on the type of crisis you are responding to, all of these characteristics may be involved.
Be honest and courageous – It is essential to show as a leader that you have emotions and empathize with the feelings of your followers about the crisis. That sentiment, however, must be outweighed with strength and courage through messaging that honestly and clearly informs people about what is known about the situation, what is not yet known, what is being done to find out more information, what is being done to respond to the crisis and the timeframe for when an update can be expected.
Leadership speaker and author John Maxwell4 recently shared in an email newsletter his four A’s for leaders during the initial phase of a crisis. He agrees with the imperative role of taking ACTION on the front-end of a situation when the whole picture is not clear. The only way to obtain more information is to lean into learning. Forward movement is critical. Figuring out what the first step and each step after that is can be daunting, but leaders are the vision keepers, so looking ahead is a valuable skill during a crisis. Maxwell says being AWARE, his second “A,” is about being open to and understanding all of the perspectives and voices involved. Trusting your intuition in ANTICIPATING the needs of your team is much more helpful than stalling due to the discomfort of not having all the information. His final “A” is AGILITY. Being flexible enough to respond to the changing circumstances with alternate actions while maintaining your core values will ensure your organization and community can survive the off-course trip the crisis is causing in your overall journey.
In short-lived crises, the middle of the crisis can seem to come and go so quickly that its communication needs blend in with the initial phase and end phase. In situations with a longer life-span, like what we’re experiencing in the global pandemic, this phase is an important one to realize as unique. Sustaining communication throughout the duration of the crisis period is where leadership can get tricky. While leaders may be excellent at delivering the quick response needed with the right message and tone thanks to preparedness or raw charisma and instinct, it is rare to be able to maintain the same level of effort through fatigue, stress, stretched resources, and fear. Leaders are humans, too. Not only is perseverance and patience necessary to maintain along with a sense of urgency to stay the course of required actions through the crisis, but another balancing act is critical to the entity’s future. Exhibiting sensitivity to the crisis, and possible sadness, at hand, as well as encouraging people to envision positive elements for the future is vital for guiding people forward and past the current reality.
Honor and understand people – Being sensitive to the situation, and people involved is what practicing respect is all about. Acknowledge the roles of the people responding to and impacted by the crisis. Understand the differences between audiences so your messaging approach can be adjusted as needed for success.
Speak with all stakeholders – It is important to communicate with everyone. Even if you have been talking with the general public and feel like all internal and external stakeholders are informed, take the time to address each group directly, customizing your message to their specific relationship, involvement, and interest area.
Be transparent – Even if you want to use ambiguous words to cover up the fact that you don’t have all the answers, steer clear of the fear and practice clarity. Acronyms and sector-specific terms can be confusing. Be clear about who is responsible for various aspects of the crisis response effort. Be clear about what you know and what you don’t in every message.
Be concise – Attention spans are short on a good day for most people. They are even shorter when dealing with all the elements of a crisis. Maintain brevity while ensuring you are sharing transparent messaging. Do not hide anything, but don’t say so much that people stop listening.
Open two-way channels – In today’s digital world, it is essential to give people opportunities to ask questions, share ideas, express opinions, and respond to them promptly. If you don’t provide at least one channel for this sort of communication, people will find a way to express themselves in ways that don’t allow you to participate with factual responses.
Use multiple methods – While we are amid the digital information age, there are plenty of people who do not pay attention to, or have access to, the Internet, social media, and television news. Remember to pay attention to your non-WIFI members by using in-person briefings, printed flyers, radio, and other communication methods.
The Tail End
Impatience with the crisis and worry about the unknown future can set in by the time a crisis is coming to a close. Leading through the end phase of a crisis and into the recovery period requires additional skill sets.
Define Next Steps – The priorities that were once clear before the crisis may be uncertain, impossible, or require pivoting perspectives and approaches to attain their goals. Leaders are called upon to connect people and the dots of the new picture5 through differences and complexities to find common ground once again and agree on a united vision. The action maps for how to best move forward will need to be redrawn, reiterated, and renewed with even more energy and resources behind them.
Manage Expectations – Plans that were in place and projects that were progressing before the crisis may need to shift temporarily or entirely change once the crisis is over. People need to be assured that a plan is either being developed or exists to guide the next steps.
A post-crisis plan is an analysis and detailed account of what went well and what mistakes were made.5 Like any continuous improvement effort, it is crucial after a crisis has passed to understand what brought it on, how all players reacted, and what could have been done differently. The adage of hindsight being 20/20 vision is especially applicable to crises where you had just traveled through uncharted territory to lead your entity through a difficult time when decisions had to be made without full knowledge of the whole picture.
Reflect – Recovery is the time for reflection on what has happened, and acknowledgment of the resulting changed reality. A new normal must now be established.
Keep Your Promises – Throughout a crisis, commitments may have been made to internal and external stakeholders. Making sure those promises are kept, and the values of honesty and integrity are modeled will help maintain and improve your leadership and your entity’s brand reputation. Following through on verbal and written commitments is also a crisis-prevention measure. Ensuring there are no loose ends that need to be dealt with after a crisis reduces the probability that anything left undone can grow into a future negative situation.
Focus on Relationships – Maintaining, repairing, renewing, and building new relationships once the crisis is over is essential for your entity’s credibility. The recovery period is much like the Spring season after a severe winter. There may still be some storms as expected in any transition period, but it is primarily a time of renewed hope, growth, and inspiration. Leaders have an opportunity to showcase optimism and vision for what is possible. Engaging as many people as possible in taking action steps towards that vision is essential, so nurturing relationships is necessary.
In reflection about how the Communities of Excellence Framework is helpful throughout crisis leadership and management efforts, it may be helpful to review the core values and categories 6.2(1) and 6.2(2). These questions cover community safety and preparedness. The Framework’s notes state, “The extent to which your community prepares for disasters or emergencies will depend on its environment and its sensitivity to disruptions.” Planning and building essential relationships ahead of a crisis make the work required through fast-moving and threatening situations of all kinds so much easier.
The leadership communications skills employed at the beginning, middle and final phases of unexpected changes and disasters contribute to your community’s ability to survive. Communities that thrive in the aftermath through the recovery stage are fortunate to have leaders who understand that crisis communications must be relevant, inspirational, and aligned with the overall vision of the community.
1 Bote, J. (2020). Mister Rogers said to ‘look for the helpers.’ Here’s how to help amid coronavirus panic. USA Today retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/03/13/mr-fred-rogers-find-helpers-quote-coronavirus-how-help-neighbors-kindness/5041005002/.
2 Mutch, C. (2015). Leadership in times of crisis: Dispositional, relational and contextual factors influencing school principals’ actions. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 14(2): 186-194.
3 Smarp. (2020). Crisis Communication: Definition, Importance and Best Practices. Smarp Blog. Retrieved from
4 John Maxwell’s contextual leadership
5 Allread, J. (2020). The Importance of Post-Crisis Communications. O’Dwyer’s: The Inside News of PR & Marketing Communications. Retrieved from https://www.odwyerpr.com/story/public/13655/2020-01-16/importance-post-crisis-communications.html