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Leading Well in a Crisis, Coronavirus or Not

I was just sitting in the bistro area of our office when someone saw a big bag of chips and some queso on the kitchen counter. My response to “Is this for anyone?” was “Sure. And it only has a little virus in it.” That was followed by (nervous) laughter from those nearby, and I watched the team member pause, deliberate, and ultimately walk away from the bowl of chips. Our words, even in jest, are powerful.

There are many things we may need to do to prepare for the growing issues. And it may be that I’m biased having spent 20 years leading communication agencies. But I believe communicating the right things at the right time is among the most important.

 There’s an interesting risk equation that says Risk = Hazard x Outrage. This is especially important as we deal with issues of high public prominence. The only element we have any control over in that equation is outrage. Here are a few recommendations for leaders as they decide when and how to address the Coronavirus with their teams and customers.

There is (nearly) no such thing as overcommunication. The worst thing you can have in your organization is an information vacuum. It will be filled. For instance, I am scheduled to attend several conferences in the coming weeks. Some have wisely already begun addressing concerns. This morning I woke up to two emails from individuals who are planning to attend one conference with me. We have heard nothing from the conference planners and my fellow attendees are assuming the worst – even cancelling flights and plans. You must communicate, and you can rarely overdo it. 

Communicate, even when you don’t have a decision. One of the biggest mistakes we make is waiting for all the facts and all the decisions to be made. Of course we want to be factually correct (that is the biggest mistake of all), but a simple “We are evaluating” or “Decisions are being made” is much better than no communication at all. If you can tell your audience when to expect a decision, even better.

It’s OK to change your mind. In fact, with the limited info we have, there is little other choice. For instance, we have shared with our team members that we are currently not moving to remote work as a whole – yet. But we’ve also said we will continue to monitor and evaluate. Being transparent to share that we’re open to change as details becomes available helps to build trust. If you pretend to have all the answers, you will likely increase “Outrage” (see formula above) which drives up your risk. 

Strike the right balance. Your personality and risk tolerance plays a lot into your gut reaction in a situation like this. Whether you believe this is a ridiculous overreaction to something less threatening than seasonal flu or you believe the end is near, you have to put personal feelings aside to connect with those in both camps. If you overreact, you fuel the fear that will increase your risk. If you downplay what others perceive to be a real risk, they won’t listen to you. Worse yet, outrage will grow.

If you haven’t yet publicly communicated to your team and clients, it’s time. Be clear and be honest. You don’t have all the answers and that’s OK. None of us do. But those who get ahead will manage the only element we have any control over at this time – the trust of your audience.



Shannon Litton is the President & CEO of 5by5 Agency, which has been named to the INC. 5000 list two years in a row. She has worked with over 300 organizations on everything from rebranding to multilingual, multicultural marketing. She is an industry expert in developing strategies that propel change down the street or around the world. Shannon lives in Franklin, TN with her husband and five children, two of whom are adopted from Ethiopia.

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