The 360 Degrees of Crisis Communications

Posted 04.07.2020

We all know by now that leaders must communicate in a crisis. It’s approaching the point of cliché because it’s true. The benchmarks for effective communications from top leaders are honesty, transparency, frequency, facts and empathy. Judging by the acclaim and appreciation he’s been receiving the past couple of weeks, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has been providing a great example of how an effective leader checks all of those communications boxes.

In times of crisis, it’s almost a societal default to look to the people in charge to transmit what they know when they know it while painting a picture of how we’ll get through this together. Its why Napoleon Bonaparte observed 200-plus years ago that leaders have a two-part job: the first is to define reality; the second is to offer hope.

So, yes, top-down communications that originates from both the head and the heart is vitally important to successful crisis management. There has been so much emphasis on top-down communications over the past month or so, though, that it can be easy to overlook other aspects of crisis communications that are at least as important.  The best crisis leaders understand that they need to be not just top-down transmitters of information but also facilitators of side-to-side communications and receivers of bottom-up communications. They run a 360-degree communications approach that incorporates these three elements: top-down, side-to-side and bottom-up.

We’ve already touched on what great top-down communications looks like; here are some ideas on how to bring side-to-side and bottom-up communications into your 360-degree crisis communications plan:

Side-to-side: When crisis leaders focus on facilitating in addition to transmitting and receiving, they help their teammates create connections that solve short-term problems while building long-term cohesion. Facilitation can look like something as urgent as bringing the right people together to develop a unified plan to allocate, distribute and share scarce resources during the crisis. Or, facilitation can look like the not urgent but highly important task of making it easy for colleagues working remotely in different locations and circumstances to share their stories and needs in ways that build empathy, connection and collaboration.

Bottom-up: Recognizing that it can be all too easy to get cut off from what’s really happening on the ground, the best crisis leaders take time away from transmitting and facilitating to make sure they’re also receiving bottom-up information and perspective from the folks on the front-lines who are dealing with the day-to-day impact of the crisis. It’s a well-observed phenomenon in history that top leaders are all too often sheltered from what’s really going on by staffers who, for whatever reason, are afraid to share the whole truth. So, the best leaders cultivate relationships with people closer to the action who will tell them what’s going on. Often, the very best leaders will visit the battlefield, as Lincoln literally did on numerous occasions, to listen and see for themselves. What leaders learn from those bottom-up communications channels enables them to make better-informed decisions during a crisis.

Top-down, side-to-side and bottoms-up. When practiced together, they form a 360-degree approach to crisis communications. Which one could use a bit more of your time and attention right now?

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