In this article, we explore the role high stake leaders play in becoming the source of facts during a crisis.
Stakeholders are vitally important to an organization for many reasons—the most important of which is the collection of value propositions these stakeholders share with the enterprise. When an organization finds itself in a crisis situation, each of its stakeholders will be concerned about the threat to their specific value proposition. Predictably, each will be looking for any information they can uncover to better understand the nature, extent, and potential impact of the threat. One of your many responsibilities as a high stakes leader should be to position yourself and your team as the primary sources of this information.
Why is it so important for an individual or a small team within an organization to serve as the primary source of “the facts” during a crisis? Because not only will stakeholders look everywhere to discover information, but there is evidence that many will demonstrate a belief in just about anything that they find.
What evidence exists to support this claim? From our own behaviors, we know this to be true. When was the last time that you conducted a Google search for an answer to a problem that you were trying to solve? When you searched, did you find it challenging to differentiate the good advice from the bad? Was it difficult to separate fact from fiction? If you struggled a bit in your attempts to find the “right” information, you are not alone. As we all have learned from our own experiences, sometimes the information on the internet isn’t particularly accurate.
During a crisis, when stakeholders aren’t getting the information that they want or need, where will they go to get it? When they visit the internet to learn about an ongoing crisis, what might they find? How accurate is the information they find likely to be? How would they know the difference between good information and bad? Common sense tells us that Google may not be the best place to find accurate information about a developing crisis, but the search engine has become so integral to our lives that it’s reasonable to assume that it will be used nonetheless. For high stakes leaders, this can become a significant liability. In fact, we have seen this play out during the COVID-19 pandemic. But before you read through a COVID-related example of this phenomenon, consider the following.
Between 2014 and 2016, researcher Jay Walker was studying societal interactions during the Ebola crisis in western Africa. In an article titled Civil Society’s Role in a Public Health Crisis, published in Issues in Science and Technology (2016), Walker prophetically suggested this about a specific challenge that high stakes leaders will someday have to face:
“When the next major pandemic strikes, it will be accompanied by something never before seen in human history: an explosion of billions of texts, tweets, e-mails, blogs, photos, and videos rocketing across the planet’s computers and mobile devices. Some of these billions of words and pictures will have useful information, but many will be filled with rumors, innuendo, misinformation, and hyper-sensational claims. Repeated tidal waves of messages and images will quickly overwhelm traditional information sources, including national governments, global news media outlets, and even on-the-ground first responders. As a result, hundreds of millions of people will receive unvetted and incorrect assertions, uncensored images, and unqualified guidance, all of which, if acted on, could endanger their own health, seriously damage their economies, and undermine the stability of their societies. . . “
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing precisely these events playing out before our eyes. A particularly interesting manifestation of this involves Corona Beer, a product of Grupo Modelo (a subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch InBev), that is brewed in Mexico and exported widely to the United States. While reports suggest that Corona sales have not been negatively impacted by the beer’s name, which it shares with the Corona virus (i.e., 2019 Novel Coronavirus), there is evidence to suggest that not everyone has been able to embrace the lack of relation.
In an article published by USA TODAY on January 29, 2020, a headline read “The coronavirus has nothing to do with Corona beer. But, some people seem to think so.” The article cited the surge in Google searches for: “corona beer”, “corona beer virus”, and “beer virus”, suggesting that some people are drawing a very real correlation between the beverage and the coronavirus outbreak.
While this somewhat comical headline may result in some head scratching by most readers, there is evidence that the impact of social media’s embracing of the story has, in fact, produced a behavioral result. The following photographs were shared on social media to document the impact of the Corona-COVID connection.
While there is certainly a possibility that these photos were staged – and that this short reading is actually propagating a developing urban legend – it is important for crisis leaders to recognize the behaviors that social media can instigate. During a crisis, stakeholders will search for (and often take as fact) any information they can find to better understand the extent of the threat to their value propositions.
What can high stakes leaders do to diminish the likelihood of losing the attention of stakeholders to other sources of information? They can take the necessary steps to ensure stakeholders view members of the crisis management team – or other leaders at the organization – as THE source of facts during a crisis.
The best way to accomplish this is to establish and publish a recurring schedule for the distribution of updates. Crisis managers have found that setting an expectation for the provision of updates at an established time every day and through a specific mechanism (e.g., a daily 6:00pm press release or a live press conference) is very well received by stakeholders. Perhaps you watched Governor Andrew Cuomo (NY) during the first several months of the COVID-19 pandemic conducting his daily press conferences to update all interested stakeholders on the latest news. This was an exceptional illustration of a best practice that created a means for stakeholders to receive consistent, reliable information.
The point here is that to be recognized as THE source of facts during a crisis, it is necessary for high stakes leaders to be very clear about what, when, where, and how stakeholders should expect to receive regular progress updates. Then, once these expectations have been set, crisis leaders must effectively deliver on these expectations during each briefing.