Lessons in Crisis Communications from Senior Sports Executives

The coronavirus pandemic may be gradually easing in certain regions of the globe, but the anxiety experienced by individuals and organizations is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. Given the inherent uncertainty around the return of sports and the economics of the industry, it is crucial that organizations maintain frequent and transparent communication with their people through this difficult time.

Good communication during a crisis is one of the most effective tools leaders have for maintaining morale and mitigating anxiety across their organizations. Without it, misinformation fills the void and starts to damage the trust and resolve of staff.

Throughout the crisis, senior leaders in the sports industry have been attending Sportsology’s roundtable discussions to speak about their experiences of managing organizations through the pandemic, with communication being a frequent topic of conversation. Here are the key lessons we’ve learned about crisis communication from those individuals over the last few months:

Be Transparent

Something that became abundantly clear during the roundtables was the need for candour and transparency during times of crisis. Everyone is going through this situation together, so it’s important to share information with players and staff as soon as it is known at senior management level. This approach can also be used with the media to some extent, as without concrete information it’s more likely that speculation will begin to circulate.

A Premier League CEO who attended one of the roundtables discussed how he has adopted a policy of total transparency in all of his communications. This has even extended to showing players financial numbers and giving them an insight into the scenario planning that is being done at board level. His team’s owner has also increased his visibility during the crisis, addressing the staff, players and media on a more regular basis.

Transparency of this kind is essential if organizations are to maintain cohesion during a crisis. Being upfront with people and not sugarcoating the situation builds trust within an organization, ensuring that everyone has a clear understanding of what is happening and an insight into the decision making process. As Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, recently wrote, “Transparency is ‘job one’ for leaders in a crisis. Be clear what you know, what you don’t know, and what you’re doing to learn more.” 

Be Consistent

A theme that came up regularly in the roundtable discussions was the importance of consistency, and the establishment of a regular and reliable cadence of communication.

One senior NBA executive explained that his organization has established a weekly town hall meeting with all staff and players. That meeting features a Q&A session to help enhance top-down communications and ensure that everyone has an opportunity to ask questions and give their opinion. So far the engagement has been fantastic and helped to reduce anxiety as well as provide a useful structure.

In times of great uncertainty, most people simply want to feel supported and listened to. If you can help people mitigate their anxiety by presenting the facts and communicating them in a consistent, useful and sympathetic way, then that can have a positive influence on morale across the organization.

Be Hopeful

The pandemic has been a deeply testing and anxious time for everyone. However, confronting the reality of the situation doesn’t mean you can’t project a sense of hope in your communications. 

One NBA executive focused on the opportunities for positive future change that the pandemic has presented. Even though the majority of internal communications focus on day-to-day challenges, it’s important to understand what can be learned from the pandemic that can help to create stronger, more dynamic organizations going forward. 

Convincing people of that sense of possibility can be difficult at a time like this, but it’s critical if organizations are to understand and capitalize on the opportunities that may arise.  

It’s OK to Say “I Don’t Know”

During a period as uncertain as this it’s OK to accept that you don’t have all the answers. More pertinently, you should feel comfortable telling your staff that you don’t know what the future holds, while being generous in sharing any information that you do have access to.

“You don’t need to have an answer to communicate something,” said a senior NFL executive. “It’s important to go against those CEO instincts that often stop you communicating unless you have something definitive.”

In the midst of a crisis, people know that nobody has all the answers. The important thing is to be inclusive and establish regular channels of communication across the organization, even if there isn’t always a great deal of new information available.   

Take Best Practices Forward

The pandemic has forced methods of communication to adapt to a rapidly changing reality. As part of that process, organizations have landed on new ways to engage with players and staff remotely, with new technologies and patterns of communication coming to the fore.

As Chris Brady, Sportsology’s Director of Research, said during one of the roundtables, it’s important that organizations understand what has worked for them during the crisis. Increases in the transparency and frequency of communication are generally healthy and, if valued by staff, should be maintained after the crisis. 

By identifying positive outcomes and new best practices from this situation, leaders can create long-term habits that improve organizational health in positive and sustainable ways.

Francesca Kielesz is HR Director at Sportsology.

Image: Marketa Marcellova/Unsplash

To learn about Sportsology’s full portfolio of products and advisory services, visit our website or email [email protected].

For any enquiries or requests related to the Research Academy, email [email protected].