5 Communication Concepts to Help Leaders During a Crisis


Laura M. Foote wrote in the Journal of Management Educationthat, “communication by leaders in the wake of a business crisis can frequently determine whether the crisis gets resolved quickly, escalates in severity, or becomes an opportunity to transform or strengthen the organization.” 

In this blog, I will overview five communication concepts that can help leaders during a crisis. They are: 

  1. Audience Analysis 
  2. Public Speaking Skills 
  3. Mindfulness
  4. Cognitive Flexibility 
  5. Tolerance for Uncertainty 
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What is Crisis Communication? 

Crisis communication is a fast-growing field of study within communication studies as many businesses and organizations realize the value in finding someone to prepare for potential crises, interact with stakeholders during a crisis, and assess crisis responses after they have occurred. 

Crisis communication occurs as a result of a major event outside of normal expectations that: 

  1. Has potential negative results
  2. Runs the risk of escalating in intensity 
  3. May result in close media or government scrutiny 
  4. Creates pressure for a timely and effective response 
Some examples of crises include natural disasters, management/employee misconduct, product tampering or failure, and workplace violence.  

The need for crisis communication professionals is increasing, as various developments have made organizations more susceptible to crises. Since the 1990s, organizations have increasingly viewed their reputations as assets that must be protected. Whereas reputations used to be built on word-of-mouth communication and one-on-one relationships, technology, mass media, and now social media have made it easier for stakeholders to praise or question an organization’s reputation. A Facebook post or a Tweet can now turn into widespread consumer activism that organizations must be able to respond to quickly and effectively. 

Concept 1: Audience Analysis: Stakeholders and Crisis Communication 

Crisis communicators don’t just interact with the media; they communicate with a variety of stakeholders. Stakeholders are the various audiences that have been identified as needing information during a crisis. These people and groups have a “stake” in the organization, the public interest, or as a user of a product or service.   

Internal stakeholders are people within an organization or focal area, such as employees and management. External stakeholders are people outside the organization or focal area such as customers, clients, media, regulators, and the general public. Foote notes in her article that leaders who delay their response while waiting on additional information can worry stakeholders, which escalates a crisis.  

Concept 2: Public Speaking Skills 

Crisis communicators must have good public speaking skills. Communicating during a crisis naturally increases anxiety, so it’s important that speakers have advanced skills at managing anxiety and apprehension.  

In terms of delivery, there will be times when impromptu responses are necessary—for example, during a question-and-answer period. However, given the importance of specific and accurate information, facts, and carefully worded statements, manuscript or extemporaneous delivery are the best options.  

It is also important that a crisis communicator be skilled at developing ethos, or credibility as a speaker. This is an important part of the preparatory stages of crisis communication when relationships are formed and reputations are established. The importance of ethos is related to the emphasis on honesty and disclosure over stonewalling and denial. 

Concept 3: Mindfulness 

Mindfulness is a state of self- and other-monitoring that informs later reflection on communication interactions. As mindful communicators we should ask questions that focus on the interactive process like “How is our communication going? What are my reactions? What are their reactions?” Being able to adapt our communication in the moment based on our answers to these questions is a skill that comes with a high level of communication competence. Reflecting on the communication encounter later to see what can be learned is also a way to build communication competence. We should then be able to incorporate what we learned into our communication frameworks, which requires cognitive flexibility. 

Concept 4: Cognitive Flexibility 

Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to continually supplement and revise existing knowledge to create new categories rather than forcing new knowledge into old categories. Cognitive flexibility helps prevent our knowledge from becoming stale and also prevents the formation of stereotypes and can help us avoid prejudging an encounter or jumping to conclusions. To be better communicators, we should know much about others and ourselves and be able to reflect on and adapt our knowledge as we gain new experiences.  

Motivation and knowledge can inform us as we gain new experiences, but how we feel in the moment of communication encounters is also important. 

Concept 5: Tolerance for Uncertainty 

Tolerance for uncertainty refers to an individual’s attitude about and level of comfort in uncertain situations. Some people perform better in uncertain situations than others, and crisis communication experiences inherently bring up uncertainty. Whether communicating with internal or external stakeholders during a crisis, we are often wondering what we should or shouldn’t do or say.  

Situations of uncertainty most often become clearer as they progress, but the anxiety that an individual with a low tolerance for uncertainty feels may lead them to leave the situation or otherwise communicate in a less competent manner.  

Individuals with a high tolerance for uncertainty may exhibit more patience, waiting on new information to become available or seeking out information, which may then increase the understanding of the situation and lead to a more successful outcome. 

Although each of these communication concepts corresponds to skills that must be developed over time, putting them to use in your everyday communication encounters should help better prepare you to use them when a crisis emerges. 

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Alan Jay Zaremba, Crisis Communication: Theory and Practice (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharp, 2010), 20–22.  

W. Timothy Coombs, Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing, and Responding, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2012), 14.  

Margaret D. Pusch, “The Interculturally Competent Global Leader,” in The Sage Handbook of Intercultural Competence, ed. Darla K. Deardorff (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2009), 69. 
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