C-Suite Advisory

What Can Trump Teach Us About Communicating through Uncertainty? Not Very Much

History will be the final judge of how U.S. President Donald Trump handled the global COVID-19 pandemic, but an array of elected and appointed officials and political observers have found his leadership and communications lacking in the face of the worst crisis faced in at least a generation.

Even more so than other modern-day calamities, the scale and uncertain course of the coronavirus has made effective leadership communications challenging. Because of the nature of the pandemic, it’s very tricky for leaders to offer a reassuring narrative on how and when things will return to normal. As horrific as 9/11 was, it was a time-specific event from which recovery began in a matter of weeks. With the pandemic, the world, country and businesses are in a “chronically acute” state, a dynamic whose message is “if you think things are disrupted now, just wait.” U.S. governors, organizational leaders and now even Trump himself are repeatedly extending stay-at-home orders and aggressively directing other social distancing measures, which have ground business and modern life to a halt, with no end in sight.

Especially because of the presidential leadership vacuum, successfully navigating this crisis has largely fallen to others, often in state governments, corporations and on the front lines of health care.

So, how can leaders in all organizations communicate honestly in the face of such stark uncertainty, while also encouraging those who look to them for direction and reassurance? How can executives and managers communicate in a way that gives people confidence that they will come through this crisis?

Offer assurances and hope.

  1. Establish a consistent communications routine. Even if an organization’s workforce is now all working virtually, leaders should establish a regular schedule of communications activities. It could be a Monday morning videoconference, a daily Jabber check-in between supervisors and their direct reports, more regular and relevant updates to the company’s intranet, or other consistent means of keeping people updated and engaged.
  2. Develop more informal ways to connect and reassure. Organizations are establishing optional late-in-the-day web-streamed socials for staff members, along with Zoom or Webex digital coffee klatches. Other tactics include Intranet and email lists of books, articles, TV shows or movies colleagues recommend to fill the time while tethered to home. All of this can help to inject a sense of routine, connection and consistency during a time when those qualities are in short supply.
  3. Communicate compassionately and authentically while illustrating how desired actions will contribute to recovery and the future. Emily Landon, a University of Chicago epidemiologist who recently spoke at a COVID-19 crisis news conference hosted by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, got high marks from state residents for her direct, but optimistically delivered advice. “A successful shelter-in-place means you’re going to feel like it was all for nothing, and you’d be right: Because nothing means that nothing happened to your family,” she said. Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has emerged as the most-admired public face of the pandemic response because of his bluntly authoritative, yet reassuring assessment of the crisis and what Americans can do to diminish its destruction.

Over-communicate, but … Even if an organization has nothing new to say, it needs to tell stakeholders that. Doing so signals that “you don’t know anything more than I do, but you’re still keeping me in the loop.” Think about the pilot who routinely announces to his plane’s grounded passengers Nothing new to report, but I promised I’d get back to you.” It suggests a sense of control in an uncertain situation.

Once employees find a “virtual groove” while working remotely, keep communications predictable, but look for signals when you should pull back. From the outset, employees have been bombarded with messages from their employers, clients, suppliers, federal and state governments, children’s schools, and parents’ assisted living facilities. People crave information, especially until situations stabilize, but be strategic and look for the communications sweet spot. At some point, more will not be better.

Advise “controlled consumption” of news. The current news cycle is all coronavirus, all the time, which makes it easy to become overwhelmed and feel helpless. People should stay up to date about significant developments, but experts counsel moderation when consuming news about the crisis. “Research shows that our perceptions of the frequency of negative events, like contracting the virus, are heavily influenced by what we see and read in the news,” said Sheila Teresa Murphy, associate professor of communication at the University of Southern California. Reminding your stakeholders of this reality may improve their outlook during these trying times.

Tell stakeholders how your organization is addressing the situation. Especially because there have been few modern-day crises where the actions of a few could hurt so many, organizations now more than ever should detail what they are doing to support employees, business partners and the community at-large. Organizations that have policies in place—including paid sick time, work-for-home arrangements, and hazard pay and personal protective equipment for those who must report to work—should proudly communicate about those benefits. Doing so will reassure stakeholders and signal the organization’s commitment to those it relies upon the most. For example, tech giants including Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter all have announced varying plans to pay hourly workers even if they’re not allowed to work during the acute phase of the pandemic. Conversely, organizations whose efforts come up short should avoid vague expressions of commitment and concern, which will ring hollow.

Acknowledge today but help the organization’s stakeholders look toward tomorrow. Organizational leaders need to be honest that yes, the current crisis will cause pain, both personal and professional. But the virus ultimately will be tamed, and a more normal life will resume. Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, was nicknamed the “inspirer in chief” because of his ability to rouse empathy and hope during crises from the Great Recession to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Leaders need to remind their stakeholders what their organizations stand for, how they’ve prevailed in the face of adversity in the past, and how they will go on to achieve its goals once the acute phase passes.

It’s a leader’s job to compellingly communicate that the organization is equipped and prepared to find its way through a crisis, and how it will prevail and ultimately thrive. Achieving that goal will require the proactive, conscientious work of every executive, manager and influencer within an organization.

Written by Stephanie Nora White.

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Stephanie Nora White
Stephanie Nora White is a contributing columnist for CEOWORLD Magazine and managing partner of WPNT Ltd The U.S.-based firm has provided communications training and strategy to organizations worldwide from Fortune 300 companies to Silicon Valley start-ups for more than 20 years. Follow Stephanie on Twitter at @WPNTLtd or connect with her on LinkedIn.