Guest Blog From Joseph Michelli: “Can You Communicate Too Much in Crisis?”

NOTE: You will benefit greatly from this guest post from Joseph Michelli, a global “customer experience” expert, who shares what he learned by talking with scores of business leaders about the role of communication during the Covid-19 pandemic.


Can You Communicate Too Much in Crisis?

Conventional wisdom says you can “never communicate too much” – especially in a crisis. Then again, author and economist Steven Levitt observed “conventional wisdom” is often wrong.

So, what do you think? Is there such a thing as too much communication?

At the pandemic’s onset, I served on C-suite taskforces for my clients (as leadership teams sought to navigate unfolding disruptions and uncertainty). As I observed leaders take very different approaches to communication cadence, transparency, innovation, and strategy, I began asking those leaders about the lessons they were learning or affirming in the context of the most significant leadership challenge of our time.

Discussions with my clients led to referrals of their colleagues. Within months, I had engaged conversations with more than 140 CEOs and senior leaders from for-profits, nonprofits, and public safety organizations. These leaders included CEOs and presidents of brands like Target, Farmers Insurance, Microsoft, Logitech, International Dairy Queen, Verizon, and Kohls. Those conversations, in turn, are the basis for my soon to be released McGraw-Hill book titled Stronger Through Adversity. https://www.josephmichelli.com/stronger-through-adversity/

As it relates to whether you can communicate too much, Linda Rutherford, Senior Vice President and Chief Communication Officer for Southwest Airlines, provided a representative response. Linda, a cutting-edge thinker and extraordinary practitioner in areas of leadership communication and crisis specific messaging, noted, “In times of crisis, people get anxious and crave information. So not only do we need to communicate more often, we must do it in a multi-channel way and be inclusive. At Southwest, that means engaging a variety of voices starting with our CEO.”

While noting the importance of increased communication, Linda cautioned against cluttered and haphazard messaging. Specifically, she shared, “If you aren’t organized, you can easily create confusion and distrust through your messaging. That distrust can escalate quickly, given how fast information changes. All communications must be aligned. Marketing, operations, and your communication teams need to stay in sync as they coordinate messages to their respective groups—customers, the media, and employees. That aligned messaging is something we work on 24 hours a day. Collaboratively, we are looking at each new communication to make sure it is purposeful, well-timed, congruent, and relevant for the audience to which it is directed.”

Concerning inclusivity, leaders like Linda recommended involving team members from diverse perspectives to write, edit, and present text-based, videotaped, and live communications. They also recommended being sensitive to gender references or binary she/he pronouns. They emphasized the importance of evaluating and rooting out unconscious bias from messages. Those biases are often associated with race, ethnicity, nationality, age, socioeconomic background, or religion.

From my assessment, the answer to the question, “can you communicate too much?” is a qualified “yes.” However, you will likely communicate too little during a crisis. It’s critical to listen for understanding and with empathy, especially during crises. Similarly, you must share information, provide updates, and check-in on your people and customers. That said, we shouldn’t communicate merely to comply with a schedule. As my momma would say, “you have two ears and one mouth, know when and why to use them.” She also suggested I should use them proportionally.

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What to Say to People Victimized by Covid19

You may have heard and read plenty of advice about what to say in certain situations–interviews, sales presentations, civic club speeches and more. Yet no course or coaching or books could have prepared us for the conversations we are having this year during Covid 19. Because of your compassionate nature, you want to talk with friends who have lost their jobs, business owners who no longer have a business or families who have contracted the virus–and even suffered loss of life.

So what do you say when you don’t know what to say? Consider these four tips:

FIRST: Note that in many cases your presence means more than your words. When you meet with a distressed individual, the very fact you showed up says plenty–because many other acquaintances stay away, afraid they might say something wrong.

Fact is, the individual you want to comfort is not likely to remember what you said, yet they will remember the uplifting power of your presence. No need, then, for you to rehearse your words. Showing up translates to “I care.”

SECOND: Become a listener more than a talker
Your burdened friends, co-workers, relatives and clients are experiencing a strong need to express their feelings. It’s best, then, to replace statements with questions that help ventilate deep feelings. You might ask:

“Started a job search yet?”

“What warm memories of your father are you thinking about today?”

“How much longer will your son be in quarantine?”

THIRD: Offer specific, practical help
A natural trend when disaster strikes: vague offers: “Call me if you need anything.” “You know you can count on me.” “I’m with you all the way.”

Well-intended as those expressions are, they lack the specificity that relationships expert Kare Anderson has advocated in her speeches and books.

Examples of specific offers:

“While your car is in the shop because of the accident, call me when you need transportation.”

“I know how weary caregivers get. On Wednesday I can stay with your daughter while you go out for lunch and shopping.”

“I’ll be glad to review your resume, to see if there are ways to strengthen your job search.”

FOURTH: Check back within ten days
Frequently people with highly visible needs welcome dozens of neighbors and friends the first two or three days after the crisis becomes known. Then usually those well-wishers return to their normal activities.

You will excel as a supporter when you check back on the distressed people within a week or so. By then, the reality of their struggle will have become more overwhelming, more intense. Your returning to them will foster gratitude and inspiration.

I encourage you to keep these steps in mind, especially during what I call our “Twilight Zone” existence–known infamously as the year 2020.

Now you know what to say–in those circumstances when previously you had no idea what to say.