One of the most challenging aspects of crisis leadership is communication with stakeholders. During a crisis, all your stakeholders will be looking for as much information as they can get. When their value propositions have been threatened, it is only natural to expect them to be desperately seeking any and all intelligence that might shed light — and hope — on their distressed expectations.
As crisis leaders, we know how important it is to share any information that becomes available with our stakeholders. We recognize that they are anxiously awaiting any news that we have to share. So, when there is some news to share, crisis leaders will typically find a way to share it. No rocket science there.
But what do crisis leaders communicate to stakeholders when there is no news to share?
I contend that communicating when there is “no news” is critical, and that cultural norms surrounding email communications have led leaders astray about communicating when we don’t have much to say. We’ve all become so bogged down by overflowing email inboxes that we’ve decided it’s rude or unnecessary to “over-communicate” with our stakeholders. Perhaps your company sends a monthly newsletter now, instead of a weekly one, or has moved most of its promotional offers to social media and retains the email channel only for “important” news.
During a crisis, we are often not confident that we have something new to share, so we are tempted to hold back a communication because we aren’t certain that it is “important enough” to send. We don’t want to fill inboxes or mailboxes or media airwaves with messages that don’t have big announcements or news of a resolution or a call to action for our stakeholders. So we sometimes go silent when we ought to be communicating most boldly, candidly, and compassionately.
The rules of engagement that you use when developing strategy for an email newsletter or normal stakeholder communications do not apply during a crisis. Remember, these are not normal circumstances. During a crisis, stakeholders are anxious, perhaps fearful, and they want information. You are a crisis leader, and, recognizing your stakeholder’s interest in what you have to say, you want to deliver reliable, meaningful information to them.
So, what do you do when there is nothing new to share, when nothing much has changed from yesterday’s message? Do you hold off until tomorrow for an update so as not to send something that might be viewed as lacking any substantive news? No. You must keep your communications flowing. And to help you overcome the urge to wait for big news to share, here’s something to keep in mind: When you are leading a team through a crisis, no news is news!
Here’s why. During a crisis, there are countless moving pieces. A great deal of activity is taking place and new information is becoming available all the time. As a member of the crisis management team, you’re seeing much of this information first-hand. You and the team are working through it, analyzing it, and determining how it contributes to your current understanding of the situation. In many — perhaps even most — cases, you determine that, “the new information hasn’t added much to your previous understanding.” So, you decide that the little you have learned is not worth sharing. You might think, “Why fill someone’s mailbox with something that doesn’t provide any new information?” Why? Because your stakeholders are acutely interested in what you have learned. They are anxious about the threat to their value proposition, and they want to know what progress has been made, if any, to resolve things. They have been watching all the activity and perhaps they have even seen bits and pieces of news through other distribution channels. They just know that there is news to share — even when there isn’t.
When you don’t send an update in the midst of the heightened tension, you are thinking that you are sparing your stakeholders from just another useless email. Your stakeholders are not seeing it this way. They are certain that there is news to share — and when you fail to provide it, they decide that you’re keeping it from them. They assume the worst, and they assign nefarious intent. “There’s something they aren’t telling us,” they think (and tell their friends or colleagues). It’s just the way we are wired. Knowing this, we must get out in front of such assumptions and rumors.
The point I’m trying to make is that crisis leaders should want to become the trusted source for information. To become this trusted source, you must establish that you and your team will communicate what you know, when you know it — even if what you know today isn’t anything more than you knew yesterday. During a crisis, your stakeholders are going to assume that there is always news to share. To earn and maintain their trust, you need to share what you know at regular intervals, ideally on a programmed schedule. Then, as scheduled, you should share what you know — whether you believe it to be newsworthy or not. Never forget that during a crisis, all news — even no news — is news.