Are your communications calm, consistent and clear? Or do they reflect the current VUCA environment—volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous? Perception is reality. Communication is the key to the public’s perception of how you are managing your world—in crisis or not. Think George Bush—communicating from the site of 9-11—perceived as a “take charge” and “swift, coordinated response,” vs. George Bush—flying over hurricane Katrina—perceived as mismanaged, slow, disjointed response. Same leader—totally different perceptions of his leadership. Your leadership is perceived and judged through your communication. How do you make sure that your communications reflect the tenets of good leadership—collaborative, effective, and transparent?
We asked Katherine Goff, Communication and Public Relations Officer at York County School Division (YCSD) in Yorktown, VA, and Dr. Vic Shandor, Superintendent YCSD, to share some of their best practices for communicating during a crisis and the lasting benefits of maintaining those practices during “normal times.”
Responding to a fire in the district that required thousands of students to be displaced for months tossed YCSD into a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous situation. The district had two things that enabled them to approach the problem with confidence and clarity: A leadership team with a solid decision-making process AND a built-in communications person at the table.
Some of their best practices which came out of having these two essential components included:
1. Timely communications
Having the person in charge of communicating in the room from the start gave that person the opportunity to be both involved and experience firsthand how and why the decisions were made. No time or facts were lost through secondhand communications. Being “in the room where it happened” allows key talking points to be developed as you go.
2. Courageous conversations
Having an established decision-making process in hand made the staff “ever-ready”—they were prepared to have to facilitate tough internal and external conversations to reach defensible, transparent decisions. Additionally, these protocols gave them the information that they needed to face large forums of parents and staff with confidence. As a result, the transparent communications helped gain the community’s trust.
3. Providing the why
Often, we focus on supplying the what and the how of our plans and decisions, without sufficiently providing the why. The why includes why the choice was made and as important, why the other alternatives were not chosen. A process like Decision Analysis makes thinking around the alternatives visible by providing the rationale for and against each.
4. Dedicated lines of communication
Providing ample opportunities for questions upfront, gives you the opportunity to prepare answers and embed answers in your communications before public forums. York County set up a dedicated ASKYSCD email account for questions from the community—giving the community the chance to “get your facts right from the source” and giving YCSD the opportunity to categorize questions for the appropriate team members, publish FAQ’s and prepare for public forums. Knowing the communities concerns and questions allowed them to play offense rather than defense.
5. Communicate up, down, and out
Understanding and recognizing that different stakeholder groups need different information allows you to tailor communications to their needs—to get the information they need to know when they need to know it. You have to organize information so stakeholders are not overwhelmed with details that do not serve them.
The tools and practices that the leadership team put in place around the facility fire served them well when the next crisis, Covid 19, arrived shortly after. The communication tools that they built, including the dedicated question line and a published weekly “digest” of information, have continued to be beneficial to the district and the community. In addition to these silver linings, the staff gained experience and confidence in using the process under fire that will continue to serve them in any circumstances. Using the common language and questions that drive the processes, leaders gain the courage and confidence to face the many tough conversations that arise in a VUCA world.