Communicating in Uncertain Times: 8 Tips for Getting Ahead of the Rumor Mill

Lisa Ardill

Content Editor at Workvivo

15 Feb 2023

Internally communicating in uncertain times – such as a company restructuring – has its challenges. Here, members of our community share their advice.

Straightforwardness. Clarity. Consistency. Simplicity. Empathy. When we asked people in our community what word they felt best described successful internal communication during uncertain times, these are the ones they shared.

What are uncertain times for a company? It could be a period of organizational change such as downsizing or leadership transition, it might be economic downturns, or it can be unforeseen external events, like a pandemic. 

All of these can leave employers and employees alike vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and misinformation, particularly when internal communication isn’t handled right. 

Proper communication is essential for maintaining trust and morale in the workplace, especially when uncertainties arise and unforeseen challenges present themselves. 

What steps should leaders take to communicate effectively during such times? Members of the Vivowire community gave us some tips. 

1. Don’t use obtuse language

Don’t try to soften the message with flowery language. Amy Oliver, Organizational Development Consultant at Children’s of Alabama, says experience has taught her that “formal corporate language leads to ambiguity and misunderstanding”, particularly for frontline employees.

“There’s no need to try to soften difficult news with purple prose or obscure language,” she says. “Often, everybody already knows how bad things are so it’s not helpful to try to lighten or minimize it.”

2. Communicate consistently

One contributor, an experienced people leader who asked to remain anonymous, says that during times of uncertainty, internal comms must be “face to face and consistent”. 

Leaders should never allow their messaging to become automated and generic, they advise, and should put the effort into giving staff an update on what’s happening every Monday and Friday. 

“Even if you have no update and nothing to say, say just that,” they share.

3. Be honest…

Which brings us to our next tip: keep communication open and transparent. 

Aside from the fact that your people are your most crucial asset and deserve to know the truth, honesty is the best policy when it comes to employee engagement. Aon reports that internal comms are more than 15 times more likely to resonate with and engage employees when they’re open and honest.

If you have an important message and you want people to really hear it, speak the truth – even if it means being a little vulnerable and saying when you don’t have all the answers yet. 

And Comms Rebel’s Advita Patel, a woman with almost two decades of experience in the business, gives great advice on her blog.

“Don’t make things up,” she says. “Under extreme pressure, it’s easy to agree to something or even say something that isn’t entirely true because you want that person to feel better.

“Instead, stick to the facts and don’t raise hopes. Stick to how you will help them make the transition and share resources (hopefully supplied by the HR team), which will give them additional support.”

4. …and don’t sit on information for too long

According to our community, one of the worst things you can do is withhold information for too long. Don’t underestimate how quickly news spreads; the longer you wait to set the message straight, the more runway you’re giving the rumor mill to churn out misinformation. 

HR Director Sarah Geraghty tells us, “Decision makers holding information for too long often leads to people making up their own stories and leaving when they could have been retained if a more positive picture was painted along the change journey.”

5. Align on key messages

You’ll also want to avoid adding to the rumor mill yourself with mixed messaging. Having a clear, concise message that every person across the company is aligned with – particularly department heads and line managers who will likely be passing this message on to their respective teams – is crucial.

Sarah shares, “Ensure there is one message which is cascaded throughout the organization, such as at meetings with leaders and people managers. 

“Ensure all of the Executive Team are aligned on key messages, and they understand the key dates of communication and the impact it will have on certain or all areas of the business.”

6. Share details

While you don’t want to overload people with unnecessary information, sharing important details at the appropriate times will keep that message alignment on track and prevent any misinformation from muddying the waters. 

One of our contributors, Senior Director of HR International at Arlo Technologies, Maeve O’Leary, says, “For me, the most important aspects of communicating any change include recognizing the past, being clear on the key messages, sharing the rationale for change, letting people know what role they play in the change, what the call to action is, and what the expected timelines are.”

7. Show empathy

One of the worst things you can do when communicating in uncertain times? “Focusing on the money versus the employee”, one community member shares. 

Maeve adds that internal communicators need to “think about the people they are communicating with and the impact it will have on them”.

Advita says, “This will be a stressful time for many. Some people may feel angry and others emotional, but be kind and respectful. 

“Put yourself in their shoes and try to understand how they might be feeling. Make sure you leave plenty of time for questions. Give them time to absorb the information and listen to what they are telling you. 

“If they want extra time to understand what it means for them, then arrange another meeting later that week. Be generous with your time, stay in touch, be visible, and check in regularly.”  

Want to learn more about how to become an empathetic and compassionate leader? Read our previous blog post here.

8. Arm people leaders with the right knowledge

Finally, if you’re asking your people leaders throughout the organization to spread and reinforce your message – whether they’re line managers, department heads or members of the C Suite – then you need to prepare them properly. 

One anonymous contributor, a Chief Financial Officer, says, “Keep the messaging concise and prep your managers for potential questions from their reports.”

Organizational Development Consultant Amy also recommends conducting regular follow-ups at the department and shift level. This will help stop the rumor mill in its tracks; if you send out a message and leave it to simply percolate by itself, you’re just delaying the confusion instead of preventing it.

Communicating in uncertain times with Workvivo

When it comes to communicating in uncertain times, the most common advice we heard from our community centered around showing empathy, sharing news quickly, and keeping everyone aligned.

Workvivo is the perfect tool for each one: the option to communicate via written form, live streaming, or podcasting means you can keep conversations more human. Having a one-stop shop for all communication means your messages reach every single employee at the touch of a button, no matter where they are or how they work. 

Want to set your internal comms strategy up for success in a world of change? Book your Workvivo demo today.