How leaders should communicate in a crisis

04 March 2021

core leadership

By Loizos Heracleous

'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me' is an old adage that many will recall from their childhood. It is commonly offered as comfort to the targets of verbal abuse. It is also patently untrue.

Together with Kevin Morrell, of Durham University, Crispian Fuller, of Cardiff University, and Ben Bradford, of UCL, I analysed the state's response to a crisis – the breakdown of law and order during the 2011 Tottenham riots in the UK.

Our research shows how leaders can use language to shape perception of events and expectations about consequences. Used wisely, with appropriate safeguards, the messaging technique involved provides a powerful means for leaders to influence opinion and action.

It is particularly suited to crisis situations, where the pace of events and extent of downside risks demand a rapid response, possibly bypassing normal decision-making processes. Deployed irresponsibly or with bad intent, however, the same approach can subvert democratic processes and sanction unethical practices.

In the case of the Tottenham riots, political representatives in the UK were able to influence public perceptions of the civil disturbance, during a specially convened parliamentary debate. They did this by framing the unrest as a "riot" (which has specific legal implications), its participants as "gang" members, and its spread across the rest of the country due to "copycat" behaviour.

This was only possible due to the performative and constitutive nature of language. By this I mean that words do much more than convey their dictionary definition. Through their associations and connotations they become labels. In addition, they frame our understanding of a situation, depending on the context, and create an effect in terms of thought or action.

For example, whether protesters are framed as 'rioters' or 'fighters for justice' affects how we expect them to be dealt with. Alternatively, describing protesters as 'looters' leads us to believe that their actions are materialistic and criminal, rather than politically motivated or a response to intense frustration with their experience of social injustice. Furthermore, the meaning of words and symbols is not fixed, but mutable, dependent on social construction. As is evident from the battle to establish the meaning of the word 'woke' in the current culture war.

The key to the success of UK MPs in harnessing the power of performative language was their ability to use language to simplify the situation by pointing to a single cause, event, or category of threat. Such neat categorisation makes it easier to unite the opinions of the target audience in order to deal with what, in reality, may be a complex challenge.

While the language used during the MPs' debate was wide-ranging, there was sufficient coalescing around the themes of "riots", "gangs" and "copycats", to create both a sense of unity and expectation about the response. And to get broader external buy-in for this version of the truth.

This approach is not only useful for Government, it is also highly relevant in a corporate setting. In this case the senior leaders are likely to be senior management and the board, while the target of situation-framing will be drawn from a range of stakeholders, depending on the nature of the crisis. 

For organisational leaders who want to use this framing technique, there are some preliminary steps to determine whether its use is likely to be appropriate. The first is to assess the nature of the challenge and decide whether it constitutes a tame or a wicked problem, or a crisis.

How the power of language shapes the narrative in a crisis

A tame problem is a normal management problem, such as the need to diversify or optimise a supply chain, or add sales channels in a particular market. Tame problems have been encountered many times before, and can be solved by established management techniques with conventional decision-making processes.

A wicked problem is multifaceted, like global warming, for example. Simplifying it down to a single issue is not really feasible; pushing too much in one direction often creates problems elsewhere. Wicked problems require adaptive leadership, acknowledging that no one person has the complete solution. Arriving at a solution means involving a wide variety of voices, bringing people together and tapping into collective intelligence.

A third possibility is that the challenge constitutes a crisis. Crises require a degree of command-and-control leadership in order to sanction a swift, coherent and effective response. Stakeholders are more accepting of such an approach in this context. Adaptive leadership, canvassing opinions, collecting information and setting direction, is simply too slow, for example. It may take weeks or months.

With little time for persuasion, participation or developing consensus in a crisis, obtaining consent for proposed actions which may circumvent standard decision-making processes is problematic. This is where leaders can use the power of performative language, just as the MPs did, to simplify the issues involved, unite opinion around a selected version of events and legitimise a directed response. Even if that response involves measures that might be considered questionable at other times.

A famous example of this type of framing in operation is the 1982 Tylenol product tampering crisis, when Johnson & Johnson's chairman, James Burke, appeared on US national television shows 60 Minutes and The Donahue Show to shape the public's perception of the company's response. Today, social media may complicate the framing exercise but the basic aim of simplifying, unifying and legitimising remains.

A less obvious use is where management manufactures a crisis internally as a catalyst for change. Take the example of a financial services company that I researched but can't name and the disruptive threat of AI to its business model. Initially, senior leaders viewed AI as a useful tool that would allow its less complex products to be aggregated online, with more complex products remaining the province of highly skilled and experienced individuals.

After a few years, however, the far reaching effects of AI became clearer. AI had the potential to replace human expertise in most aspects of the company's product and service provision and prompt a major reconfiguration of resources. Companies that could employ AI effectively would emerge as market leaders, while the rest would be at a competitive disadvantage. Highly-skilled people would risk losing their jobs, unless they accepted the inevitable incursion of AI, expanded their skills and moved up the value ladder. The difficulty was persuading people, who were highly invested in the status quo, of the reality of the threat they faced and the urgent need for change.

As a result, the firm decided to galvanise internal commitment to change by framing the AI threat as a crisis; beyond the business opportunities it offered. Senior management used language which made it clear that, regardless of expertise, these highly-skilled people could be out of a job within a few years unless they were able to add value at a higher level.  It was a simple, unified message, that legitimised organisational change with the tacit understanding that individuals would have to proactively engage in a change process if they wanted to survive.

With power comes responsibility. Because of its effectiveness, the performative power of language has long been part of the armoury of practitioners of political and corporate dark arts.

Governments and organisations may wish to portray events as a crisis in order to deploy authoritarian, even coercive, measures, and deal with the symptoms of an issue, rather than its complex more problematic causes. Consequently, responsible leaders should implement safeguards and rely on their moral compass to prevent the approach from being abused.

The best controls are informed debate, transparency, scrutiny and accountability. While there may not be time for lengthy discussion when a crisis strikes, a framework for guiding the approach can be constructed beforehand. It might consider what constitutes a crisis and, therefore, when the simplify, unify, legitimise framing technique is appropriate. This framework may be underpinned by ethical guidelines, themselves shaped by informed debate.

Then, with the correct safeguards in place, we must hope that leaders choose to use the power of language as a positive force for good during a crisis, rather than the verbal equivalent of sticks and stones.

 

Loizos Heracleous is Professor of Strategy and teaches Strategy and Practice on the Executive MBA and Executive MBA (London). He is also author of the Janus Strategy

Follow Loizos Heracleous on Twitter @Strategizing.

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