On June 4, 1940, Winston Churchill stood in front of the British Parliament and delivered one of the more famous speeches in history. “We shall never surrender,” he said.

In that speech, Churchill had to acknowledge the military disaster in France, the likely surrender of the French and the possibility that the Nazis would invade Britain. All of this while somehow preserving the faith of the British public in the ultimate victory. There are times when the news is dire but hope is badly needed. Those are times when leaders need to communicate the most.

Communicating during times of crisis requires a very thoughtful approach and presents additional pressure and challenges on a leader to find the right words and the right tone of voice to deliver the bad news but still reassure both clients and team members.

The ultimate goal of communication in a time of crisis is to maintain your credibility and relevance and to seek the trust and charter to act. In a crisis that is external in its nature, you as a leader have to accept that you do not control the crisis, its source or its outcome. What you seek through communicating is not to create an illusion of control or provide an interpretation of events but rather show that you remain relevant in this situation and win the trust of your team and clients.

In our experience, the right approach to communicating during a crisis means doing some or all of the following things:

  • Recognizing the need to communicate. When the situation is difficult, when the impact is significant, leaders have to recognize that it is time to speak and speak in a voice that is heard over the turmoil. Not hearing from the pilot during severe turbulence is likely to result in a panic in the cabin. Even if the situation is outside of your control and is not the result of your actions, if your team or clients are affected in a significant way, you have to stand in front of them and deliver the news and accept the responsibility for guiding them through the crisis. If you have not reached out to clients at this point, you definitely should. What is also very important, though, is to talk to your team. Many advisory firms are great at reaching out to clients but often forget to speak to their own teams.
  • Fully acknowledging the situation, including all the bad news. In a time of crisis, trying to spin a story that downplays its severity will severely undermine your credibility. If you want others to follow you, you have to fully acknowledge what has happened and what is the impact on your constituency. In describing the situation, you should be factual, specific and clear. Your communication should both fully recognize the scope of the impact but also define its limits.
  • Speaking with gravity and resolve. A serious situation requires a serious tone and a serious medium. Times of crisis require formality in the channel and the tone of voice. Attempts to use more casual language or a more casual medium will appear to downplay the seriousness of what is happening and will not have the desired effect on your audience. I receive many e-mails from advisors since I am included in their CRM systems, and I have seen many messages that try to be more casual by addressing the recipients as “friends” or even by using emojis. Normally, that can be fine, but not in such a dire situation.
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