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Industry leaders discuss effective crisis communication

Peter Caulfield
Industry leaders discuss effective crisis communication

The key to successful crisis communication is getting timely, clear and accurate information out to employees, customers, suppliers and regulators, and doing it all while remaining cool, calm and collected.

This was the view of several construction industry leaders when asked by the Journal of Commerce how they’re handling their organization’s communications during the COVID-19 pandemic, and if they have any tips to pass on to other leaders.

Robert Haller, executive director of the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association, said during the pandemic communication has to be honest and straightforward.

“You can’t become an expert on something that’s outside your expertise, so don’t try and pretend you know something that you really don’t,” Haller said. “Good leaders surround themselves with knowledgeable people who can handle the technical details of a question.”

Because most organizations have multiple stakeholders, it’s important to develop different messages that address the respective interests and concerns of each one.

“Assure your staff that you’re looking after them and that you have their best interests at heart,” said Haller. “The message to your professionals should be more technical and detailed. Give them the information they need to do their jobs.

“If you need to communicate with local politicians, send a simplified message so that they can tell the public what they need to know.” 

Haller said he aims for a tone that is serious, but also positive and hopeful.

“Our role is not to be inspirational,” he said. “That’s the government’s job.”

Haller recommends the approach of the prime minister.

“(Justin) Trudeau makes calm and positive daily announcements, and defers to his officials on technical, detailed questions,” he said. “I also admire the candor of the premier of Ontario. Premier (Doug) Ford has been willing to admit his mistakes when he’s made them and make course corrections when they’ve been needed.”

Mike McKenna, executive director of the BC Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA), said good leaders aren’t necessarily the same people who are good on the tools.

“Leaders know what information to collect, how to gather it and how to get it out to their stakeholders,” said McKenna. “Leaders need to listen carefully to their content experts and to be cautious about what they say, because this really is a life-and-death situation now.”

McKenna said the different groups in the B.C. construction industry have been staying in touch during the COVID-19 crisis. 

“I’m in regular communication with construction leaders and I send them new information if it’s useful to the whole group,” he said. “I keep the BCCSA board up to date on the association’s internal news. Every day we touch base with all the big associations by TeamViewer (a remote connectivity platform).”

Caroline Andrewes, president and CEO of the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies British Columbia (ACEC-BC), said the message put out by her association is based on three principles of engineering ethics: The protection of the public; a safe and supportive working environment; and support for consulting engineers.

The ACEC-BC website contains plenty of information for engineers and the construction industry on COVID-19, including the following:

  • Summaries of the meetings of the ACEC-BC COVID-19 Advisory Team;
  • A guide on how to perform field reviews during the pandemic;
  • A three-part guide on effective leadership during a crisis; and
  • Links to a set of Harvard Business Review articles on leading and working through the pandemic.

Andrewes said consulting engineers have an important role to play in the economic recovery to come. 

“Economies don’t like surprises and, once surprised, they need to be nurtured back to health again,” she said.

Consulting engineers are problem solvers, said Andrewes.

“There’s no problem that is too complex for us,” she said. “We take what we’ve learned as consulting engineers around the world and apply those lessons to the current crisis.”

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