Effective leadership communications during times of conflict

Reaching the right people requires collaboration and prep.

Managers and leaders know it’s just as important to know how to communicate during hard and hectic times as it is the good ones.

While no one wants to be the bearer of negative news, effective leaders can navigate internal conflicts and changes like a ship through stormy seas to a safe harbor. Whether you’re instituting internal changes within a tenuous business climate or addressing societal influences that bring up unexpected conversations at work, comms and leaders must align to ensure that messaging is sharp, decisive, and transparent.

Collaboration and preparation bring clarity and calm

Times of strife and conflict might seem to appear out of thin air. However, smart communicators have detailed game plans for their leaders to address any conflict that arises.

Karen Testa, director of global communications for Bell Flight, said that an air of clarity and calm should form the basis of any updates from leadership during times of conflict.

“The first thing to do is to stay calm,” Testa said. “At Bell, upon learning about bad news such as a crash, a major contract cancellation or any other difficult business situation, my first action is to quickly assess what happened or is happening, determine how and what to say about it, and develop an easy-to-execute plan with key messages and a timeline.”

Internal communicators can also partner with their external colleagues to form a holistic plan of action.

“I collaborate with my external comms peers in person or virtually,” added Testa. ”We collect all the information we can to quickly determine the overall and immediate communications needs and the degree to which the company’s reputation could be affected.”

Reaching the right people on the right channels

While it’s great to have a plan of action in place for times of conflict, it’s just as critical to ensure your messages from leadership are reaching the right stakeholders.

Judy Rader, senior vice president and chief communications officer at Constellation, said that being as direct as possible with your stakeholders is the best path forward.

“Setting up a call with key stakeholders is a proven approach, but at times more direct, one-on-one outreach may be more effective,” she said. “This could include soliciting input from leaders of a relevant employee resource group, or working with HR to identify and reach out to individual employees who may be affected by an issue.”

Comms pros should also consider the avenues they’re using for outreach, as varying them up will help diversify the paths of entry to your audience. Internal audiences will nearly always be interested in a conflict that’s related to the business, but there might be exceptions, such as geographically centered issues.

“The mix depends on the nature and the sensitivity of the news,” added Testa. “The content we distribute always includes a contact to answer additional questions. That is usually the employee’s supervisor or the HR business partner.”

Vulnerability is paramount

When there’s a conflict afoot, consider what information to share and what to hold back.

Steph Lund, CEO, North America at M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment, said that leaders and communicators alike need to think carefully about what info and messages are going to make the most impact, particularly in times of strife.

“Think through the information that is helpful and what is unhelpful to your audience,” she said. “There are certain sensitives in every situation and not everything is applicable to divulge. “It’s important to separate short-term information from longer-term impact and determine what needs to be discussed now versus future messaging.”

While it’s often an overused buzzword, transparency is real and meaningful when it helps maintain the critical connection between leaders, employees and other stakeholders. Communicators should work to equip leaders to give the proper reasoning and context behind decisions and actions the company is taking.

“It’s not unreasonable to expect employees to want to know the good, the bad and the ugly (of the conflict) as long as the context is provided and the information is delivered professionally and with empathy,” Testa said. “I have coached CEOs to always acknowledge when something is disappointing, unsettling, or flat-out devastating. They should be comfortable demonstrating some degree of vulnerability if they expect to maintain trust and credibility.”

Rader added that communicators should work with leaders throughout the process of responding to a conflict to show their value as an advisors and earn the all-important decision-making table.

“Especially during times of change or strife, the most important role for communicators is to serve as strategic business partners to their company’s leaders,” she said.

“That means deeply understanding how our companies operate, how they make money, and the needs and expectations of all our stakeholder audiences, so that we can be effective strategic advisors to senior leadership and help achieve better business and communications outcomes.”

Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports and hosting trivia.


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