The essential qualities of a communications director in times of crisis

In a crisis, and we are now a few weeks into the crisis of all crises, there are certain qualities that high calibre corporate communications/affairs leaders (and their teams) must demonstrate in order to help an organisation to deftly navigate its way through uncertain and challenging times.  Four of these are absolutely paramount and they are by no means commonplace (as a combined package).

Emotional intelligence  – a good communications or corporate affairs director will bring emotional intelligence and empathy to a situation that will inevitably require it and to an executive team that probably won’t have it in abundance. That said, a number of companies have demonstrated unusually high levels of humanity and empathy in this crisis, but this is partly because everyone is in the same boat and when stigma and reputational damage is seen to quickly attach itself to those who are not seen as having done the right thing, there is clearly an incentive.

A CEO of a large media and entertainment business, talking about his communications director, recently told me that it is “his blend of IQ and EQ on a testosterone loaded board that I value most”. It’s crucial that there is someone at a senior level who has the EI to anticipate and understand the emotional reaction of those people (employees particularly in the case of COVID-19)) affected by the decisions and behaviours of senior executives; and equally help these senior executives understand and recognise their own impact on others. This will help steer them away from decisions and subsequent actions that could land badly and damage both their reputation and that of the company.

Judgement – the best communications leaders have the ability to balance a sound commercial understanding of the needs of the business with the reputational considerations and stakeholder issues inherent in the external environment; and make judgement calls accordingly. These judgements are often nuanced and will frequently have a positive impact on reputation (if called right) or a negative impact (if called wrong). So the stakes are high. An ability to judge how something will land and play out, both internally with employees and externally with the media and the broader political and societal stakeholder landscape, tends to be common theme in this regard.

Courage and independence – some of these judgement calls require courage, as well as some independence of thought/view, because they may not always be popular at executive board level. It can mean holding up a mirror and saying things that senior executives may not want to hear or have strong and contrary views about. 

A good communications director should be more sensitised than most of their executive colleagues  to both the prevailing political and societal mood, and the way in which corporate behaviour will be scrutinised. This means that they may well have to take the initiative in pointing out where action, however unpopular internally, needs to be taken; or where behaviour needs to change. Doing the right thing does not always make you popular internally (restraint around executive pay is always a classic example) and that requires courage and strength of conviction.

Creating alignment – there are few senior executive roles that have to influence and build coalitions across such a broad array of internal stakeholders, all of whom, particularly in times of crisis need to be aligned and unified behind positioning statements and messaging. It starts at the top where consensus and alignment amongst senior executives (easier if they are also peers) has to be established, since that is where the narrative begins its communication internally and it may well not be one they would choose. CEO sponsorship is obviously a prerequisite, but the CEO may well have to be moved towards the position and narrative that the comms director is proposing, particularly if it means that established business norms and business practices will not suffice.

This alignment then has to be extended across the enterprise since reputation is the result of every touch point between an organisation and its stakeholders, and these touch points are inevitably distributed across all business units and functions. So leadership across the company, in many cases geographically dispersed, has to be aligned, otherwise they won’t act and communicate in a consistent manner. Strong networks, normally built by influencing and relationship building skills, are crucial in this respect.

Alignment across the organisation has also got be balanced by the alignment and coordination of external narrative and messaging and internal narrative. In a crisis it is vital that external communications around response and intent is aligned with the reality of employees’ experience and what has been communicated to them.

There are other qualities of course, including a calm head and a steady temperament, but emotional intelligence, judgment, strength of character and influencing skills combined are a great asset at a time when other colleagues are unlikely to take a 360 degree view of the situation, and the action and corporate and individual behaviour it calls for.  

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