Disaster strikes when you least expect it. When it does, a good leader should understand that communication is key to managing a crisis both internally and externally. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, better known as the BP oil spill, in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. Lives were lost, workers were injured, and the extent of environmental damage is yet to be determined. In addition to this ecological disaster, then BP CEO Tony Hayward’s poor communications during the crisis resulted in a PR disaster for the oil company. According to corporate communications expert Jonathan Hemus: “This incident has illustrated more vividly than ever before the crucial role of the CEO in a major crisis. At this time he becomes the CRO – the chief reputation officer – and he is required to make communication his number one priority.”
Hayward’s departure as CEO of BP was largely due to the number of communications blunders he committed under persistent media scrutiny. The oil spill being the largest marine oil spill to date, Hayward’s untimely and reckless comment that he wanted his life back, as well as his continued weekend sailing trips communicated his lack of empathy and made the crisis seem even worse to the public. To Hemus ‘preserving reputational value in a crisis is about demonstrating strong and effective leadership and Tony Hayward failed to do this.”
In this case, Hayward’s poor communications placed the company’s reputation at risk. CEOs also set the pace for corporate culture and that culture tends to be perceived as a reflection of the CEO. It is important therefore that the communications culture the CEO instils, is one that maintains the integrity of the company internally to employees, as well as externally to the public. Effective communications is key not only in the case of a crisis; a crisis merely demonstrates the effectiveness of the organisation’s communications culture. If it is weak, a crisis will bring that afore. If it is strong, that will come through as well in how the CEO manages the crisis.
Alan Hall, contributor to Forbes magazine, lists the following traits as characteristic of top communicators:
Today’s leaders like Richard Branson are known to use the social networking platforms effectively to communicate to his staff and to the public. Ultimately, a leader who seeks to be effective in his/her job will realise the importance of communication and use it to establish a relationship with their employees that will result in them being admired, trusted and followed.
Communications and leadership specialist Leigh Anthony cites the following five points as key in developing an effective communications approach:
1. Verbal and Nonverbal Communication
Verbal communication is the most obvious form of communication. However, research has shown people pay much less attention to the words that are said and much more attention to the actions and nonverbal cues that accompany those words. Nonverbal cues include facial expressions, use of hand motions, body posture and eye movements. Leaders should strive to always match their nonverbal cues to their words; when they do so, they are more believable and trustworthy.
2. Adapting Styles
A good leader adapts his communication style depending on his audience. When speaking to employees, he may need to have a much more directive style than when he is delivering a presentation to the community or speaking to customers. Leaders should identify the audience and their characteristics and interests, then adjust their communication style based on what the audience needs and what will encourage them to react to meet the goals of the communication. Throughout the course of a day, the leader may have to switch between an authoritative style with employees and an inspiring style with stockholders.
An important aspect of communication is the ability to listen. Active listening should always be a goal, with the leader focusing on both the verbal and nonverbal language of the speaker. Active listening involves concentrating only on the speaker and ignoring outside interruptions, including the listener's own wandering thoughts or possible responses. Active listeners also refrain from interrupting, give the speaker time to finish, show they are listening by doing things like nodding or smiling, and reflect or paraphrase back to verify their understanding.
4. Setting an Example
Leaders and business managers should realize employees will look to them as a model of how they should behave under certain circumstances. Employees tend to emulate how they see leaders acting and communicating. If employees see a leader using an active listening style and empathetic tone with customers, they are more likely to do the same. When leaders are open to the ideas of others and praise often, employees will tend to follow suit. When speaking, leaders should consider whether they would want their employees to speak in the same way to the same audience. If not, the leader should adjust his communication style.
Effective communication skills do not come naturally for most people. Many people, including business leaders and managers, need to practice repeatedly in order to improve their skills. In addition to practicing, leaders should consider classes or training that will help them communicate effectively. With the tool known as 360-degree evaluation, every person in the organization is evaluated by one or more superiors, colleagues and employees. Leaders can participate in 360-degree evaluations both to serve as an example for employees and to identify whether their communication skills need improvement.