A NOTE FROM WARD HUBBELL: COMMUNICATING THE UNKNOWN
When my daughter was a few years old she asked me: “Daddy, what happens when we die? Do dogs go to heaven?”
As much as I wanted to assure her I knew the answer – and comfort her – I just couldn’t bring myself to look her in the eyes and tell her something I knew I didn’t know.
What does one do when they can’t explain the unexplainable? In the end, I did what a lot of parents do in those situations. I mumbled through an answer until she was onto something else. Mercifully, the conversation moved on.
I’m getting a lot of questions these days reminiscent of a child wanting to understand heaven and death. But they aren’t as easy to deflect.
Will I have a job next month? Should I make an offer on that house? Will our paychecks be affected?
Just like I couldn’t bring myself to give assurances to my daughter, I can’t do it with my employees either. I could probably get close to a good answer if I knew how bad the current economic situation will get and how long it will last. But as we all know, that is not possible.
The truth is, I don’t know. No one knows.
Communicating the unknown is, by definition, not possible. Seems logical, right? Yet somehow this does not relieve us from trying. And because our business is communications, we’re being asked by clients and our community: So, what are we supposed we say?
Over the last few weeks we have all grappled with this unimaginable crisis we are in, but in our business we have been in the unique position of helping people explain the unexplainable. It’s been tough, but we’ve learned some things about what works and what doesn’t.
I want to share some key principles that we’ve found to be particularly helpful in guiding how to communicate during this time.
Express confidence. Yes, things are bad. Yes, they will probably get worse before they get better. But you are steadfast in your determination to do whatever it takes to get through this crisis. Be confident that you can. Think about the last couple weeks watching public officials opine on this situation. I don’t know about you, but I like leaders who exude confidence in the face of formidable challenges. The truth is, this will end at some point. How your organization fares will depend on how hard you were willing to work – and how much you were willing to sacrifice to get there. Knowing your employer, your supplier, or your business partner is up for the challenge is the best comfort you can provide right now. Remember this: It’s better to be strong and wrong than weak and right.
Be specific about your values and general about your plans. No one knows how this pandemic will progress, or when or how it will end. What you do know, however, is what values will guide your decisions during the turbulence ahead. Right now, many organizations are talking about putting their employees’ and customers’ interests ahead of all else. That’s a values statement. It doesn’t mean no one will lose their job or no customer will miss a delivery. What it does mean is the organization is committed to carrying as much burden as possible before they pass it along to others. This is a reputation-building moment. The decisions you make and the way you treat people today will greatly influence your reputation when this crisis is a distant memory.
Be available and on script. Now is not the time to hide. Our tendency when we don’t have answers is to either say nothing or say too much in hopes that saying something irrelevant might distract from the situation. Neither works. Plan to over-communicate for a while. Utilize online shared work platforms, video conferencing, conference calls and the like. As leaders, make yourself readily available. People are anxious. But they know many things are unknowable right now. Be prepared to hear a lot of the same questions and to respond within your ability – even if you have to repeat yourself.
I don’t want to pretend these tips will solve every communications challenge we’re facing right now. In truth, there is no playbook for a situation as massive and complex as this pandemic.
Here’s what I do know. During a time when every hour feels like a new situation, we’re going to continue posting helpful information, resources, and guidance at our Hubbell COVID-19 Resources Page.
We’re learning every day. And every week we make it through this crisis is a big step forward.
Let’s keep going. Together.
President, Hubbell Communications