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Decisive Communications in Uncertain Times

It’s not often that a press release from a trade association stops me dead in my tracks.

A statement from the National Association of Manufacturers proved to be an exception to that rule. Released 2 hours and 37 minutes after rioters breached the perimeter of the Capitol, it condemned the events and called for the invocation of the 25th Amendment against a sitting president. This was coming from an august institution representing the interests of America’s largest manufactures, not exactly known for being a radical bunch. A sea of communications from America’s top executives followed.

Something was clearly afoot—something with great ramifications for the future of communications.

Following the events, we at SJR decided to dig into the data to get a better picture of what happened and measure its impact. Looking at statements from 35 leading executives, we conducted sentiment analysis using nearly 1 million data points from January 7 to 8 across social media and the internet to see what resonated and what fell short.

Here are some of the lessons we walked away with, which we think are crucial to informing your communications moving forward.

Create decisive communications where it counts

On the afternoon of January 6, executives had to make an unenviable decision. A fast-moving, politically charged event had now reached their feeds and inboxes. Do you respond, or not?

Even in the best of times, that calculus is never easy. Balancing all the needs of all your stakeholders unavoidably creates some friction.

Ultimately, many executives rose up to the moment and issued firm public condemnations of the events, pledging their support in defense of democracy. It’s difficult to see that decision as hasty. Condemnation became nearly universal, and corporations have continued to raise the stakes with suspensions of PAC and campaign donations.

Yet even in a moment as unambiguously consequential as the Capitol riots, the question of whether public response was right and necessary is a difficult one. Some organizations made the decision not to respond, and for them, that was the right call.

A better question, we venture, is whether your communications were decisive in the right places.

Internal communications are one place where decisive communications are non-negotiable. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the highest-regarded CEOs have been those who have spoken to their people—especially employees—calmly, clearly, and in detail, often. They are, as we have explored, servant leaders who intimately understand all their stakeholders. And employees now attribute huge importance to regular employee communications. In a moment as critical as the Capitol riots, employees were looking to their leaders for guidance and a clear sense of what the events meant for their organizations.

The need for publicly facing statements in such a highly charged situation doesn’t lend itself to blanket generalizations. What may work from one company and be seen as an authentic extension of their values might be seen as a shameless PR grab by another.

However, any response that is public needs to be unambiguous, and it needs to be delivered decisively. In a moment as polarized as our current one, some people will respond negatively: Our analysis found that only 46% of executive statements received net-positive sentiment. As an organization you can’t be everything to everyone.

What you can do, however, is maximize the chances that your communications will resonate with your key audiences.

Project a vision of leadership, not a statement

In any crisis moment, deciding to respond is only half the battle. Truly impactful statements are as much a balance of what you say as how you say it. And faced with a sea of responses—many of them identical—how do you break through and deliver a message in the way you need to?

The impulse to tame the chaos with a tightly limited statement or press release is totally understandable. But in moments that affect real lives, getting personal can go a long way.

As we found in our analysis of CEO responses, there was a connective thread among many of the most positively received ones: They were personal and embodied the leaders’ own voices and personas, they put forth a moral vision or inspiring ethos intimately connected to their organizations’ priorities, and they painted a clear vision of tomorrow.

In a word, what worked was getting back to the roots of great storytelling.

A memo is easy to tune out, but a great narrative arc—even in 280 characters—takes you in, forces you to think, and hits you on an emotional level. This is doubly true if it’s delivered by a charismatic leader.

Creating the communications structure that allows your leaders to tell human stories at speed and scale should be seen as a vital tool in how you communicate with the world. January 6 might have been a black swan event, but the need to respond quickly, authentically, and humanly to complex events is not going away anytime soon.

As we’ve found, developing an effective thought leadership program for your entire C-suite can be a powerful first step.

Agility solves for the now and later

Following a year already shaped by the need for agile and quick communications, the events of January 6 and the resulting reaction of the business world point to a new era of speed.

Just as every new land speed record set a new benchmark, the rapidity of the executives who did respond to the events created a new set of expectations.

Now, then, is the time to ensure that your communications ecosystem is truly agile, in all senses of the word.

Agility here is not just about speed for speed’s sake. Above all else, you should be focused on making sure that whatever your executives communicate is authentic and adds value and context to a discussion. Transformative statements can take time. However, speed is quickly becoming seen as a signal of both intent and the strength of your commitment, and it’s worth evaluating your capabilities to ensure you can act quickly when you need to.

Agility is also about flexibility and responsiveness. An agile communications ecosystem is what allows leaders to build a foundation of consistency and transparency. That means building in the expectation that your leaders will be engaging with important issues, internally and externally, on an ongoing basis, so they can build the credibility to effectively respond to the events that really warrant it.

As our research found, out of all negative responses, 26% were calling out inconsistency in executives’ responses. The perception of inconsistency is one that any leader must grapple with. Guarding against it takes a careful investment and long-term view toward sharing your consistent leadership philosophy with customers, clients, and the general public.

For communicators, the next few years are bound to offer moments where certain responses are required for uncertain events. We’re still in the midst of a global pandemic, seeing ongoing economic fluctuations, and facing a uniquely polarized landscape. Making sure your communications engine is responsive, agile, and authentic is one important way for your organization to be ready to lead through change.