Cutting through communication clutter

- July 2020

By Margaret Cresswell, Principal at Parbery

As Australia grapples with a second wave of rapidly increasing new virus outbreaks around the country, there is another out-of-control epidemic causing considerable disruption – communication overload.

With a 24/7 news cycle coming from myriad traditional and digital sources many people are experiencing chronic information fatigue. There is little respite from the constant bombardment, and most times it doesn’t inform but rather causes confusion, upset and panic.

A natural response to being overwhelmed with competing information is to simply turn off and stop listening. And when the narrative is a relentless stream of frightening messages on things beyond our control – as we’re experiencing now with the pandemic coverage – the audience disengages.

This type of receiver response isn’t only associated with major public crises; how organisations communicate about uncertainty or change with their stakeholders (staff, customers, suppliers) can either make or break trusted relationships.

Communication and trust – know your people

As a leader, it’s important to understand that the way you normally communicate may not be effective both during and following a significant event.

Individuals interpret and act on information differently depending on a complex blend of factors. Understanding your stakeholders and target audience concerns, beliefs and motivations is key to delivering messages that not only resonate but also have sticking power.

How do you cut through and get clear communication?

When people don’t get what they need from their leadership, they turn to more readily available sources of information – friends, colleagues, media.  This results in more confusion as misleading and outright incorrect information is shared, creating further misinformation, and distracting from the strategic intent and direction of the leadership.

Communicate early and often

This is one of the fundamentals of good communication, whether responding to a crisis or everyday engagement with stakeholders.

Focus on what can be shared, rather than what isn’t known. Open, honest reporting of what’s happening and how it may be impacting people, maintains transparency and credibility.

Use a variety of communication channels to share updates and key information. Keep the information simple and easy to read and understand. Explain why decisions have been made (i.e. why people can’t return to the office yet) and what this means to them.

Be the key source of information

If you don’t provide accurate, timely and easily understood information to your people, they will look elsewhere for answers.

Address rumours head-on before misinformation can spread. If there is a gap between what people are hearing and what they know, they will fill the void in any way they can, in an effort to understand what is happening. People naturally fear the unknown and without guidance and transparent direction misinformation can quickly escalate anxiety and fear.

Be honest and transparent

Don’t keep information back from people when it’s available.  Waiting until you have all the facts or answers before you share it with your team isn’t helpful and can give the impression there’s something to hide. Keeping people in-the-loop with regular digestible pieces of information is more effective that waiting days or weeks in silence before doing the big reveal.

Acknowledge challenges but also look at the positives

Transparent, consistent and truthful messaging builds resilience and supports positive change. Acknowledging challenges rather than glossing over problems demonstrates a wiliness to tackle issues head on. It should not be all doom and gloom though.

A positive approach that clearly outlines a way forward reinforces that there is an end to the ongoing challenges and together the organisation and its people will come through stronger.

It’s a partnership – take your people on the journey with you

Good communication provides regular, clear and succinct information that puts the situation into context and addresses head-on what is impacting people.  It cuts through the white noise and does the hard work for the audience – giving direction on how to navigate, adjust and thrive through change.

When all is well, gimmicky communication can work, but during times or crisis or challenge, people become hyper-aware and will see through the fluff. We are all witness to the global desire for greater honesty and facts and the erosion of public trust.

You won’t always get it right but being as honest and transparent as possible is key here. People respond to authenticity and equally will sense when leaders are being disingenuous. Authentic values and genuine relationships are the basis of all good communication.

Margaret Cresswell is an expert in strategic communication, change and human and organizational behaviour and has lectured at the University of Canberra across multiple communication disciplines. Margaret is a past serving member of the Royal Australian Navy and has consulted internationally.