Crisis Communication: Never More Critical
by Dianna Booher

Today more than ever, crises abound. The nation faces a challenge like none other. And many companies are facing similar trials - those that breed fear into the very fabric of the people and threaten to undermine a once-strong bottom line.

How do we respond? What do we say not only to rally people around a common cause, but to quell fears, ease concerns, and bring employees together?

President Bush, in his September 20, 2001, address, not only understood this challenge, but he communicated a message that accomplished each of these objectives and more.

With the eyes of the world upon him, Bush communicated a firmness that allowed the world to see America's resolve in fighting terrorism. He effectively "drew a line in the sand" by saying "Either you are with [America] or you are with the terrorists." Strong words to be sure. Necessary words to accomplish the objectives.

He communicated a vision, a plan of action, and effectively motivated a strongly partisan Congress to come together for the common good. President Bush knew what many executives and managers in today's companies need to better understand: that the medium is as important as the message.

The words you choose and the way you deliver your message can make the difference between advance and retreat, between motivation and hesitation, between growth and decline.

What does it take to communicate and implement these ideals among your own employees? To help them "get back to work" and not only keep your revenues moving in the right direction, but keep the economy strong as well? Following are three methods for motivating employees in these tough times ahead.

Establish Credibility/Trustworthiness

Simply put, credibility counts. Have you ever known the "grapevine" in your company to be more accurate than the "official word"? Phenomena like this are generally borne out of a lack of trust. People question the "official word" and begin digging around for the "real story" to circulate among their peers.

Without trust between you and your employees, titles and rank don't matter; friendships and liaisons don't matter. You cannot expect that communications - upward or downward - will be effective. Period.

While trust is not built overnight, there are a few things you can do to establish credibility immediately and build on it:

  1. Show concern and compassion. Your employees' apprehensions are real. Let them know that you not only understand their feelings, but that you are experiencing anxiety as well. People have to feel your concern before they hear your words.
  2. Be complete. Recognize the difference between lies, half-truths, omissions, and cover-ups. True but incomplete statements can lead to false conclusions; truths without complete explanations can lead to lies. Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!
  3. Admit what you don't know. It's a fact of life: no one knows everything. When you are faced with a question you don't know the answer to, admit it, find the answer, and return with a correct response. Nothing makes people believe what you do know like admitting what you don't know.
  4. Accept responsibility for your actions/decisions. If you have control over a decision, own up to it. Tough decisions are tough for a reason-they impact lives, sometimes negatively. When you are faced with such a decision or must take an unpopular course of action, people may be upset about it. But they will feel more frustration if they perceive that you're shirking responsibility or pointing a finger.

Develop an Attitude

Attitudes are contagious - good, bad, or ugly! Yours should consistently show others that you believe in the goals, objectives, and strategic plans of your organization. Be positive and resolute.

To put it in the current vernacular, the president's speech had attitude. As Sam Donaldson said, " . . . It sounded fierce, the president looked fierce." Like President Bush, you should exhibit firmness, an unambiguous resolve, and an unending commitment to your "cause."

Speak in Specifics

In an era of self-protection and "purposeful vagueness," speaking in specific terms may seem threatening in and of itself. But, scary or not, using specific language may never be more important than it is right now.

The president used specifics. To calm the nation, he suggested specific actions each citizen should take:

"I ask you to live your lives and hug your children . . . and I ask you to be calm and resolute, even in the face of a continuing threat."

But he went further. He laid his own plan of specifics:

"I announce the creation of a Cabinet-level position . . . -- the Office of Homeland Security. . . . [This position] will lead, oversee and coordinate a comprehensive national strategy to safeguard our country against terrorism, and respond to any attacks that may come. . . .

We will come together to improve air safety, to dramatically expand the number of air marshals on domestic flights, . . . . We will come together to promote stability and keep our airlines flying, with direct assistance during this emergency."

Whether defining a corporate strategy or explaining a necessary budget cut, using facts, numbers, expert opinions, specific calls-to-action, and omitting those "weasel words" like might, possibly, and should will shape the outlook of your employees and motivate them to work together through a difficult time.

But what about times of crisis when you don't know what actions you will undertake? How can you be specific? Be clear about the steps you are taking to determine long - or short-range plans, the investigation of the situation.

Your employees can appreciate extraordinary circumstances that don't have clear-cut answers. They won't appreciate ambiguities about the analysis and resulting actions.

We hope you'll never have to draw a line in the sand among your employees on such a serious occasion as the president did. But from time to time you will need to gain their buy-in to continue to compete in the marketplace. Like President Bush, how you communicate will determine your company's course for the next few months and years. His approval rating has reached as high as 90%. As a leader in your organization on those occasions, where will yours be?

Author/speaker Dianna Booher is CEO of Booher Consultants, a Dallas-based communications training firm. Her programs include communication (writing, oral presentations, interpersonal, customer service communications, gender, listening, meetings, conflict) and life balance/productivity. She has published 40 books, including E-Writing: 21st-Century Tools for Effective Communication (Pocket Books, February 2001), Communicate with Confidence! (McGraw-Hill), and The Esther Effect (Nelson-Word). Several have been major Book Club selections.
Call 817.868.1200; and visit

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Copyright 2001 by Dianna Booher. All rights reserved.

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