Business School: How companies should communicate in times of crisis

Professor Stefan Allesch-Taylor on why clear, realistic messaging has never been more important

In his latest Business School column, serial entrepreneur, CBE, Professor of the Practice of Entrepreneurship and Fellow at King’s College London, Stefan Allesch-Taylor, explains why, as the coronavirus crisis eases, clear, effective communications are crucial for businesses of all sizes.

As we enter the tenth week of the coronavirus lockdown, and all that entails for businesses, the majority of entrepreneurs should now be taking actions to get their business moving again as restrictions ease. And this means communicating with people at all levels of your business about what your next steps will be. Here are some simple rules all those in business should be considering now:

No spin

This is not the time to default to a strategy of ‘bigging’ your business up when opining on the speed at which you expect turnover and core fundamentals to recover. There will be serious questions about your competency if you overstate these. Everyone knows the difficulties you face – don’t be afraid to be realistic, even cautious. The next few months will be as much about how you communicate as what you communicate so make sure your message is clear and easily accessible.

stefan allesch taylor

Professor Stefan Allesch-Taylor

Logistically, I suggest a simple online portal with restricted access for different segments of your own business community. A password for managers, a password for staff, a password for stakeholders/creditors and a password for customers. Don’t make the mistake of cautiously communicating generic platitudes that can be read by all but say nothing of value to anyone.

Remember that this portal represents your own personal values as an entrepreneur, as well as your company. Don’t repeat the horrendous mistake of a number of hitherto very respected business people who misjudged the mood of the nation with their quick fire, ill-conceived waffle. (I’ll spare their blushes – we all know who they are, which is exactly my point!) You have to populate your portal and any communications you make with credible, confident expertise and stick to the specifics of your business not the global economy as a whole – we all have Bloomberg etc. for that.

Stay on message

As entrepreneurs we are all prone to taking a small piece of knowledge and spreading it very thinly. We think quickly on our feet and tend to take the view in meetings (yes, that’s communications too in this context) that we’ll frame an answer to suit the question and by the time the recipient has ended their next meeting we’ll make our waffle a reality. Where’s the harm? In this environment, a misstep like this could be fatal to your reputation. If someone suggests something of value tell them you’ll look at it and get it done – don’t pretend you’ve already thought of it and it’s in place. Listening and acting is not a business or leadership weakness!

man with smartphone

Also, stick with what you know you know – not what you think you know. Most people have a view on the coronavirus pandemic, and everyone is suddenly speaking with the authority of an epidemiologist – which is ironic because many actual epidemiologists aren’t saying too much just yet.

In so far as you are predicting how macro assumptions will be part of your micro individual company strategy, you must fact check everything you communicate to all your business segments. One false move can destroy confidence in your leadership from within and to any outside stakeholder. You’re not a ‘quack’ and no-one expects you to know how the pandemic will play out. Business people opining on the pandemic authoritatively without referencing the scientific facts is just embarrassing.

Regular updates

I can’t stress enough the importance of regularly updating your business community on your status and the immediate plans you have reasonable certainty of (notwithstanding any legislative changes or government intervention). Be cautious, if you make a statement and backtrack later it will hurt your brand and credibility as a leader.

"Everyone knows the difficulties you face. Don’t be afraid to be realistic, even cautious."

By having a portal and populating it regularly you control the narrative and have the ability to crush any gossip or panic that may unjustifiably be swirling around your business (let’s be frank schadenfreude is never far away in business). You are also able to communicate crucial information to just the specific segment it impacts and have the freedom to actually get on with executing plans rather than manning the phones to your team, partners and stakeholders for more general ‘seeing how things are going’ updates, which are courteous but very expensive in terms of time.

Email is not your friend

At least it isn’t for dealing with anything thorny, sensitive or vitally important that you want to build consensus or support for. We have all become lazy, perhaps a little charmless, and most definitely at some point or another ‘hidden behind’ an email.

As an entrepreneur one of your greatest assets (and, if not tempered, your greatest weaknesses) is your force of personality but, in truth, no one has much of a force of personality on a sterile email. If you write a very long treatise no one will bother to read it. Their knee jerk reaction may even be ‘what the hell is this?’ as they scroll on and on. Too brief an email can come across as rude.

laptop and phone

If you are trying to persuade someone to help you achieve something you desperately need to move your business along then only communicate with them in the initial stages by phone or conferencing. Right now, people are not simply going to judge you on what you tell them (they are as uncertain about the immediate future as you are), their judgment call will also include your demeanour, tone and attitude which can be seriously distorted by email.

Make plans

Finally, it goes without saying, the pandemic is truly horrible and the cost to mental health will be long term. The damage this will cause, coupled with the economic challenges, some believe, may be far worse than the pandemic itself. There will be endless debates about whether the ‘cure’ (in this instance the lockdown) was worse than the virus itself. For the record, I am firmly of the view it is not.

However, as entrepreneurs we must make plans. In this uncertain environment, you need a flow chart of alternative, responsive plans based on a flexible trading strategy – with effective communications built in every step of the way. Now is the time to take action and move forward, controlling the messaging around your business as you go.

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