This year has been a test of crisis communications unlike anything in our lifetimes. The pressures of dire situations like these cast the essentials of good communications into sharp relief and also tend to exaggerate any failures of application. As this pandemic continues, our connection with our communities will likely hinge on a feature that can simultaneously be the easiest to take for granted and the most essential: language itself.
Let’s assume for a minute that two institutions are each activating shrewd, well-thought-out decisions across this pandemic. In this case, their success hinges on the language they use to inform and support the students, families, faculty, staff, alumni and neighbors that depend on them. To put it another way, even when our operations are sound, words often determine whether our institutions thrive amid a crisis.
Here are a few reminders of how to keep language an ally in this still-unfolding crisis:
1. Lead with empathy.
We are problem-solving institutions. We want to tell our audiences our testing plan, our reopening plan, when students can return to campus, what hybrid model of teaching will be used and so on. This is essential information. But our audiences are also facing stress, some of them of extraordinary kinds. Before we explain the latest problems we’ve solved, our communications -- whether in emails, Zoom meetings or any other medium -- have to show that we understand. Our language must express, rather than assume, this humanity and empathy, first, in every communication. Conveying it also typically helps those we serve become more receptive to the business at hand.
And it often only takes a few sentences, like, “We know this has been an extraordinarily stressful time, and we hope you and those you love are healthy and well. We mourn with all those who have suffered loss and illness during this pandemic.” We don’t greet friends first with the latest business. We start with, “How are you?” In a crisis, there is trouble and worry. We must show that we get it. Every time.
2. Lower the temperature.
During a crisis, language either raises the temperature or lowers it. We’ve all seen it happen in our lives: one person, stressed out, uses incendiary words. If the other person does, too, an explosion follows. This is a matter of temperament -- but also of words. Since crises make things hot, institutional voices must always be the cool ones.
Amid this pandemic and its ceaseless pressures, the burden is even greater to use words that lower the temperature. Whether in writing or discussion, this means avoiding adverbs and adjectives, because by definition they intensify, using neutral instead of loaded nouns, and selecting verbs that suggest understanding and preparation, not fear and unpredictability. At campuses encountering, for example, rising infections, it’s the difference between “threats” and “challenges,” “worries” and “questions,” “predicament” and “situation.” It’s the difference between “vacate campus” and “return home,” “warn” and “caution,” “investigate” and “evaluate.” We want to sound like humans, not bureaucrats, tell the truth and not spin, and share the facts without fanning fear.
3. Show comfort with uncertainty.
During crises, which often involve dynamically changing information (epitomized perhaps by a pandemic), precision and perfect knowledge are impossible moment by moment. The pace of decisions and the language around them have to show, humbly and honestly, that we are doing our best and only addressing what we currently have resolved -- and that this could change.
Especially when it affects our well-being, most of us would generally rather hear what the authorities know so far than fill the gap with our own fears and paranoia. In deference to reality, institutional communications create a critical connection when they acknowledge that some information is provisional, with phrases like, “as best as we can determine,” “at this time,” “more information will be to you soon” and other stand-ins for uncertainty. In far-reaching crises, our audiences are in it with us. Our words can respect this shared experience and trust them with our learning curve.
In many ways, ideas like these reflect habits we all try to live by at our best. When the stakes are highest, good communications aspire to exemplify them, too.
Pete Mackey, Ph.D., is president of Mackey Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in communications strategies and messaging for higher education and nonprofit leaders. He previously led communications at Amherst College, Bucknell University and the University of South Carolina.