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January 10, 2023

How to keep a change from becoming a crisis

Broadreach Public Relations Linda Varrell is president and founder of Broadreach Public Relations in Portland.

Over the past year, I’ve received twice as many calls for crisis communications than in the 15 years since I launched Broadreach Public Relations. And none of them had anything to do with COVID.

In some of the cases, organizations were already in the throes of Def Con One, worst-case scenarios that were rapidly escalating and threatening to wreak collateral damage on their employees, customers, brands and long-term chances of survival.

But in many of the cases, the leaders weren’t staring down crisis, but major organizational changes that could potentially become crisis — if not properly managed. 

Any change — in leadership, processes, strategic direction, or human resources — has the potential to rattle staff, vendors and customers, even if the change ultimately will benefit them all. Humans, by nature, just don’t like change. But handled with care, a change can burnish your reputation instead of leaving it with a blemish, and ultimately leave you stronger than before. 

Here’s how to manage it:

Remember: labels matter. Ground yourself and your leadership team in what is happening and think carefully about what you are going to call it. Be consistent and ensure it passes the “spoken word” test. Whatever label you give to a situation initially will become your new vocabulary. Using updated language is vital as the cultural meaning of words change over time — using words like “diverse” and “variety” interchangeably can take your messaging in two very different directions.  

Spare people the spin. I’m a big advocate of candor, so If you’re cutting benefits, don’t say you’re “harmonizing” them. Trying to bury bitter pills in flowery euphemisms rarely goes well. Use plain English. If you’re making staff cuts, call them layoffs — don’t say you’re rationalizing the workforce.

Clarify the context. What events and dynamics led to this change? How will this change alter the course of your organization and help it thrive? When change is about, if staff, suppliers and customers don’t understand what led to the change and what the change is leading to, it leaves too much room for rumors, conjecture, catastrophizing and erosion of confidence in leadership and the company’s future.

Think downstream. Your most valuable resources are your human resources. How will this change impact people at an individual level? How will it impact their families? As a leader, you’re accountable for that. And if something like a change in leadership won’t affect employees’ job stability, it’s important to articulate that too. Surround yourself with people who will candidly inform you about what ripple effects this change will have in an immediate and visceral way to the people who depend on you.

If you mess up, fess up. Make phrases like “I don’t know,” and “I made a mistake,” a part of your working vocabulary. All leaders at one point or another will have to utter the words, “you are right, we could have handled that differently.” Integrity is one of the most important building blocks for reputational capital. Your staff and customers will only trust you more if they know you’re not afraid of admitting errors, speaking inconvenient truths, and taking responsibility when things go wrong. Candor and humility are supremely-important leadership qualities. We are all learning and growing as human beings and leaders, along with our companies.

Plus, it’s only from candidly starting where you are, and dealing with the facts, that you can start to figure out what needs fixing. 

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