Communicating During Times of Uncertainty

March 11, 2020
By iQ Staff
Woman in grey dress standing at a subway station, watching a blurred train pass by.

When facing a situation clouded by uncertainty, it can be difficult to know what to say — or whether to say anything at all. Some organizations react to uncertainty by sticking their heads in the sand, ignoring the situation until it reaches a fever pitch, while others may be so quick to respond that they speak out of turn or spread the wrong information.

The coronavirus outbreak has many individuals and organizations worried. Companies are reaching out to their employees and customers to communicate new policies, or address concerns, or simply to let their stakeholders know they are actively monitoring the situation.

Even without the threat of a pandemic, businesses face uncertainty all the time. When the economy has taken a downturn, or a merger is on the horizon, or new leadership starts taking the company in a different direction, it can sow serious seeds of doubt, fear or discontent among employees or customers. Organizations can quickly fall victim to rumors or misinformation that twist perceptions and cause mistrust.

In times like these, communication may not be able to solve all your problems or answer every question, but it can help instill trust and confidence in your organization.


Making the case for transparency

The demand for open, honest communication is stronger than ever before — and the stakes are higher if organizations don’t cooperate. Employees and customers have more power to hold organizations accountable by publicly calling out bad behavior on social media, voting with their wallets or engaging in other forms of social activism.

Organizations should strive to communicate as transparently as the situation allows. Above all, be honest. Of course, in some cases it is neither appropriate nor recommended to share everything you know, such as during active litigation or if those who were affected have not yet been notified. If you choose to keep quiet regarding a key part of the situation, know that you may be asked about it and prepare your response in a way that safeguards confidential information while remaining honest.


Don’t play the waiting game

If a situation is clearly simmering, don’t wait until your stakeholders start casting doubt or demanding you address their concerns. The longer you go without communicating with your stakeholders, the more they will wonder, and the more time your opposition will have to bend the narrative.

You should already have your finger on the pulse of stakeholder sentiment, monitoring social media, reading the news and asking customers about their concerns. If you hear employees are worried about losing their jobs or that customers are wondering whether you’ll be affected by a recession, gather your leadership team and make plans for how you will address a potential crisis of uncertainty. Assess your level of comfort with talking about the unknown and identify the tipping point that will trigger you to communicate. Draft holding statements for several different situations that could occur so you’re ready for anything.


“Communication may not be able to solve all your problems or answer every question, but it can help instill trust and confidence in your organization.”


Ask yourself: Why communicate?

One of the hardest parts about communicating in an uncertain situation is knowing how much to say. If you reveal more than what’s appropriate, you may dig yourself into a hole or end up in legal trouble, especially if the situation changes and what you say turns out not to be true anymore. Say too little, and your stakeholders may be left with more questions than answers, or criticize you for being vague and unhelpful.

If you are having trouble striking a balance, stay focused on the “why” — why you are choosing to communicate. In an uncertain situation, your audience is often looking for reassurance and guidance. Give your audience an honest overview of the situation, but don’t blow it out of proportion. Communicate what you are currently doing about the situation without making promises or speculating about what could occur.

The third option to consider is whether you should say anything at all. If other companies put out a statement, don’t feel pressured to follow suit just because everyone else is doing it. If the situation does not impact your stakeholders, think twice before inserting yourself into the conversation. You don’t want to come across as opportunistic or have your audience wonder if there’s something they should be worried about.


Communicate to build trust

Sometimes, uncertainty can’t be avoided. When the only way forward is to wait and see, communication can prevent uncertainty from morphing into fear and keep alarmist thoughts at bay.

Speaking without knowing all the details can be nerve-wracking for a company, especially when the stakes are high, and when saying the wrong thing could initiate a PR nightmare. But communicating during times of uncertainty isn’t about saying, “I have all the answers.” It is about acknowledging that the situation exists, that your audience’s concerns are heard, and that you are taking steps to prepare or address the situation as it unfolds.

Start with plain, honest and authentic communication. Think about why your employees, partners or customers might be worried and recognize what they are feeling. When the situation becomes clearer, your stakeholders will be more willing to trust what you are saying and have greater confidence that you are acting with their interests at heart.