Communicating in times of uncertainty

In times of crisis, human beings become desperate for certainty.

This has rarely been better illustrated than in the enormous challenge faced by governments and health officials in their public communications about the coronavirus pandemic. The problem is not so much what is known about the virus and what is needed to counter its spread, as what is not known. Put another way, how do you deal with questions for which, at the time, there are simply no answers?

This situation is highly instructive for school leaders, especially in times of an evolving crisis. These circumstances create two points of enormous pressure: first, the understandable desire of parents to know as much as possible about what’s happening and its impact on their children. Secondly, internal pressure for a school Head to be seen as ‘in control’ and ‘across the facts’. In many ways, it is this second point that represents the greatest risk, as it leads to the temptation to speculate or provide information that has not been verified or properly tested. If this information turns out to be false or misleading, the short-term impact can be perilous, undermining the credibility of all further communication and even driving people to turn to alternate ‘sources of truth’ including conspiracy theorists and peddlers of fear and misinformation. The long-term impact can be equally devastating in eroding trust and confidence in the school leadership.

So how do you balance the deep-felt desire for certainty with the reality of an evolving situation where the facts are not clear and may, in fact, remain unclear for some time?

My solution is to structure your messaging into a three-tiered model as follows:

  1. Here is what we know. Outline the information that is verifiable and known beyond any doubt to be true.
  2. Here is what we do NOT know. Anticipate the questions uppermost in the minds of the people receiving the information. These are likely to include the cause(s) of the crisis or specific details that are still to be investigated or confirmed.
  3. Here is what you need to do right now. This might be as simple as advising people that there is no need for them to take any action at all. On the other hand, in the case of a disease. outbreak for example, it may mean pointing people to specific advice of health authorities.

The overarching principle of this messaging structure is the need to maintain an ongoing flow of information, albeit with some caution.

You need to make a firm commitment to provide regular updates to the school community as often as it is necessary. This is especially the case if new information comes to light or you need to prompt parents to take specific actions. Once people are aware of a situation, long periods of hearing nothing from sources of authority can pose great risks. Rumour-mongers love a vacuum, so extended silence from official sources can quickly be filled by conjecture — especially in the realm of social media.

Frequency of communication is important, even in circumstances where there may be little change from day to day. However, this needs to be balanced with the risk of over-communication or inundating people such that they begin to feel overwhelmed. More doesn’t equate to better: too many repetitious messages can dilute the effectiveness of your communication.

Lastly, it is important to recognise that different segments of the school community will have wildly varying appetites for information. There are many who will simply be content to know the facts, trust that the school has the situation in hand (as far as possible) and wait for the next update. At the other extreme, you will have people with particularly high levels of anxiety. To counter this challenge, I always suggest offering either or even both of the following:

  1. A dedicated number, email address or social media capability to enable direct contact for those who have further questions. This also provides a touchpoint for those with anxieties, rather than leaving them to turn to the likes of Facebook to express their fears.
  2. A dedicated and centralised communication source where updates and further information are accessible by your school community. Most commonly this would be a section on your website.

Of course, there is no perfect solution. We live in an age where many people are sceptical about what they hear from those in positions of leadership. However, I believe what I have offered above provides some mitigation of the risks inherent in an unfolding crisis.

John Le Cras has nearly 40 years’ experience in journalism, public relations, marketing and corporate executive roles. John launched his own consulting firm in 2011 and works extensively in issue management and crisis communication in the private school sector.

John Le Cras

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