There’s no doubt about it: an emergency – whether created by humans or nature – is a time for crisp, crystal-clear communication. There’s plenty we can learn from the habits of great emergency management leaders.
A few weeks ago I spoke at the Australia and New Zealand Disaster and Emergency Management Conference on the subject of leadership in the spotlight of an emergency.
While emergency communication is the product of a specific set of circumstances, applying many of its principles to everyday communication will help you convey your messages with maximum oomph.
The challenge, of course, is that everyone out there is now a 24-hour news crew with eyes and ears on anything that’s happening, and the means to convey it to the rest of the world in an instant.
Let’s assume we’re all communicating in an emergency context every day. What does that mean?
Don’t sit back while others carry your agenda
For a start, no piece of information can be secured behind closed doors. You no longer control the timing around what people know about you and your business. They’ll find out, when it works for them. Whether you’ve put it there or not, there’s plenty of information just a Google away.
We need to operate with the assumption that everything is already out there. Just like there’s a race on to get the first video of a major fire posted on Facebook, there’s an enthusiastic audience for any stories of woe about your business. There’s no tolerance for anything less than 100% transparency in the information coming from your organisation. That’s always been the case, but there’s now an even stronger driver for it.
You can’t control the release and flow of information, any more than you can stem the tide of social commentary if people feel the need to vent on some element of your business. You can, however, make sure you’re the source of truth when it comes to that information. That means always being prepared to communicate on the front foot.
In my experience, many organisations still hang back and let others carry their communication agenda. Make no mistake; if people want to know something about your business and there’s an information vacuum, someone will fill it. That needs to be you, rather than a person with only half the story sharing randomly in their social networks.
Regardless of whether you’re relaying positive information or responding to a negative issue, get and stay on the front foot and be the reliable, credible, definitive source.
In our content-saturated existence you certainly won’t be the sole origin of “facts”, but you will provide invaluable service if you shine a light on what’s real and what should be quickly discarded, and help people join the dots. Sometimes we need to focus on giving meaning to all the other information that’s out there about our business. People will say all kinds of things, and we can’t control that, but we can help our audiences sort the data from the drama.
Spell it out
Whether or not you’re in the middle of an emergency, check to make sure your messages are clear. It’s all very well to have seemingly limitless numbers of communication channels, but know first what you want to say. What action do you want people to take as a result of those messages?
Being clear is key; whether you’re emailing staff, writing web content, giving information over the phone, across the counter or in meetings. Having razor-sharp and consistent messages helps slash through the blur of confusing noise from all those other sources.
A third element we can take from emergency response principles is the importance of building rapport with our audiences. Some of the best emergency response examples in recent history (think Anna Bligh and the Queensland floods) involve credible leaders showing their human side. Many others have got this wrong, and paid the price. It’s hard to forget then BP CEO Tony Hayward’s “I’d like my life back” brain snap after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Some organisations seem only concerned about blurting out their information, without thinking of those who’ll be receiving it. How will they be framing the messages? Why should they care? What’s going on in their lives that will be likely to affect the way they receive the information and respond to it? How can we make it as easy as possible for people to understand what we’re saying.
Doing everything you can to have strong and positive relationships with those most important to your business opens the way for effective communication. People will be more open to your messages, there’ll be less resistance and more chance that your information will be understood accurately.
You don’t need a disaster to practice the skills of emergency response communication. Applied well, they’ll ensure you have the best chance of standing out from your competition - for all the right reasons.