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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Avoid “No Comment”–What to Say Instead

Without warning, your company can become the center of local, state, national, and in some rare cases international news. Your corporation’s unwanted time in the spotlight could result from:
–embezzlement
–CEO firing or resignation
–burning building
–sexual harassment charges
–huge stock loss
–sale or merger
–customer’s lawsuit
–work site fatality

Frequently these incidents will bring the media to your front door. Even before you can invite newspaper, radio, and TV reporters to a press conference, the “nose-for-news” professionals start bombarding you with questions.

Instantly, you think of similar situations, where you have watched business leaders respond. Quite often, you have heard them answer questions–especially the toughest ones–with “no comment.” So that’s the best way for you to reply. Right?

Wrong, totally wrong. Why? Because “no comment” sounds evasive, deceptive, and suspicious. Seems you must be hiding something. Your credibility begins to evaporate.
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So if you get into this public crisis situation, avoid “no comment.” Instead, use this approach:

“I understand that you need the answer to your question now, and I would be glad to give it if I could. However, we are exploring the situation, to gather all the facts and confirm their validity before we make a public statement on this issue. As soon as we have the information you want, we will contact you quickly.”

Then there’s one more step to make this comment satisfactory. Do what you promised. Never assume the media reps will forget your pledge. Contact everyone who questioned you, and distribute your documented findings.

As famed broadcaster Paul Harvey might say, that’s “the rest of the story.”

Conclusion: Dodging reporters damages your image. Delaying reporters courteously until you are able to furnish valid facts and explanations not only helps you maintain your reputation, you are likely to elevate your company’s prestige.