The Message: What to say in hard times

If many leaders seem at a loss for words, it’s because they are; but their silence is damaging, and their wisdom is sorely needed.

Executives’ communication aides are just as frustrated as everybody else by the global financial crisis. Maybe more so.

“Enough platitudes already,” an anonymous corporate communication executive tells “The economic stuff is the elephant in the room. It’s inescapable. You have to acknowledge it. You have to talk about it. I almost can’t hear anyone if they don’t. Oh, and by the way, our company doesn’t.”

“There is a psychological consequence to what our leaders say and how they say it,” says former George H.W. Bush speechwriter Michele Nix. “Confident, unified messaging would go a long way in helping to calm markets and Main Street.”

“It disappoints me that today so many industry leaders are ‘Chicken Littles’ at worst, or silent at best,” says Alexander Tsigdinos, managing director of the executive communication consultancy, the BlueChair Group.

Eventually the kvetching began to yield to the constructive in our conversations with executive communicators about how leaders can and should be addressing the global economic crisis—and why they’ve so far been quiet, by and large.

Mike Field, special assistant for communication to Johns Hopkins University president William Brody, understands the reticence of university presidents.

“There is going to be lots of bad news on every [university] campus, but as yet, I don’t think anyone has gone forward to let people know—probably because we are all still figuring out how bad it’s going to be and how deep the retrenchment that will be needed.”

Which, of course, is the first problem we need to solve: Leaders don’t like to say anything until they’re pretty sure they know everything. But as with any tragedy, the best and first way a leader can communicate is by showing up.
Our sources gave us a step-by-step guide to communicating through this financial crisis:

1. Get up in front of your people and take their questions. Toyota Motor Sales manager of external/internal communications Ron Kirkpatrick said his leaders discussed the economy extensively at an annual dealer meeting and took questions at a town hall meeting on the subject—down-and-dirty questions about bonuses and possible layoffs. “Nothing was off the table,” Kirkpatrick says, adding that it’s important to acknowledge that “no one really knows when things will get better.”

2. Take responsibility for your part in the crisis—or at least your lack of foresight in seeing it coming. Just as most Americans scratched their heads at the notion of mortgages with no money down, surely most business leaders saw signs that the economy was wobbling. Executive communication consultant Ron McCall proposes a kind of form apology for captains of industry: “I’m sorry I let the business of America get to the point where the government had to nationalize our banks.”

(As for the banking executives themselves, it may be too late for apologies, McCall suggests. “When the government bought equity in nine private banks, the government became the CEO and the leaders of those banks became the COO. And who wants to hear from a COO?”)

3. Explain the situation in clear and arresting terms. No one knows how the economic situation will resolve itself, but a good communicator can at least describe the causes in terms that people will understand. You might give speech that doesn’t reassure anyone of anything but leaves your audience saying, “That’s the first person who ever explained this stuff in a way that I understand,” says Tom Rosshirt, former speechwriter to President Clinton and managing director of the West Wing Writers Group. Even if it’s an audience of experts, he points out, you can use metaphors and other rhetorical devices to send them away—as Warren Buffett often does—with a new communication tool: “That’s the clearest explanation I’ve ever heard. I’m going to use that.”

4. Propose a context for the current situation. “What’s lacking today is a reassurance that ‘this, too, shall pass,’ ” says Tsigdinos. “Business and political leaders should make their sober assessments of the new economic reality, remind us that we’ve survived tough times before, and instill confidence that we’ll get through this as well.”

At Toyota Motor Sales, the execs are already doing that, says Kirkpatrick. And it’s working. In reaction to reminders that the automotive business is cyclical and has been through lots of hard times in the past, “so far, associates seem to be taking things in stride, even though we’ve canceled the annual holiday party and cut back on travel budgets,” he says.

Got hope? “A wise man once taught me that the language of leadership is about presenting the brighter future,” says Kirkpatrick. Eventually—after acknowledging the reality and the severity of the situation, leaders have to try to express a positive vision—for the good of us all. “When people have hope and feel good about the future,” Kirkpatrick says, “commerce hums.”




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