8 ways to talk in a crisis

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I started writing this article a week ago, and then put it aside. Waking up to Friday’s news (in case you missed it, we’re leaving the EU), I thought it might be the right time to finish it. It’s about how pension schemes can handle a crisis – but the principles hold true for any business trying to calm a fraught or uncertain situation.

Lots of pension communication is designed to deal with business as usual – the ongoing stuff that will guide a member from sign-up to sign-off, and beyond. But what about the way we talk to members when a scheme is under stress? Maybe they’re moving from final salary to career average, closing to new members or future accrual. Or maybe they’ve just seen the value of their underlying assets plummet because of something external, like an island slipping away from the continent.

We’ve helped several schemes recently who’ve been in these tight circumstances. We’ve helped them handle questions, reunify a workforce and get members to accept, even vote for, change. Here are eight things we learnt, that might help you and your scheme look after members in times of uncertainty.

1. Write regularly
If you think nature hates a vacuum, you should see how rumour feels about one. If members don’t know when they’re next going to hear news, then rumours, misinformation and fear will spread. So set up a regular newsletter – weekly, fortnightly, or monthly if that’s all you can do. And keep talking to people. Even if there’s been little change since the last newsletter, write and tell people that. If it’s a quiet period, you can always use these newsletters to invite questions and give people other useful information. And share your communication plan with members. Uncertainly is the worst thing to face when you’re worried. So, as well as writing to people regularly, tell them how often you’ll write and by what dates you expect to know more, so they don’t feel they’re on a mystery tour.

2. Invite questions and answer them
If one person has a tricky question, there’s a good chance that hundreds of other people are worrying about the same thing. If you hope these questions will go away, you’ll probably find they just multiply. So gather them, answer the person who asked them and, where appropriate, make the question and answer available to others. If your technology allows it, have a Q&A section of your intranet, where popular or recent questions get promoted to the top of the list. And keep telling members where this section is. This way they can get the latest info and they can see that you’re doing things to help them.

3. Agree a core story and stick to it
When things are in a state of flux, there are often lots of different versions of events being told. HR are telling their version of events on the website, the CEO is saying something else to the press and the pensions team are telling a third version of events in emails. This happens, not because people are trying to spin an angle, but because people interpret information and events differently and in the moment. So get together and agree what the order of events is, why things happened, what you’re going to do in response and what the timelines are, etc. You can then make sure that you’re all telling the same story, even if you’re telling a different part of the story, depending on your audience.

4. Make sure members know who their trustees are
The value of information and the trust we place in it depends on who sent it to us. If there’s ill feeling or suspicion about an employer or their behaviour, then the trustees’ role as communicators can be really valuable. So don’t wait until there’s a problem to introduce them. Do it now. People don’t need to know the biographies of each individual. They just need to know where they’re from and what their responsibilities are.

5. Segment your messages
Make it very easy for each member to find what’s relevant to them. If different groups will be affected in different ways, tailor letters and emails, so they’re right for each group. And populate letters and emails with figures that apply to that member if you can. Of course, you also have to make sure people know where to go if they want more details or to find out how other groups are affected. But don’t make it difficult for people to find out what it all means for them personally.

6. Meet members face to face
If you can arrange ‘town hall’ meetings, where people can come and meet you, do. It not only gets people asking questions, but it shows that you want to engage with them. If you’re nervous about a few of the questions you think they’ll ask, list those questions now and answer them before you go in. You can even ask people to present questions before the meeting if you’re really worried. This will also help you see which questions are coming up again and again. And not knowing the answer is fine – just admit you don’t and tell people that you’ll find the answer and get back to them. This is a great role for member trustees to play, as they will share concerns with other members. Not everyone will be able to make meetings, so make videos of your presentations, trustees’ views, and members’ reactions, and put them on your intranet.

7. Find your champions
There will be people who are in touch with lots of members and can help spread your messages, scotch rumours and calm tempers. Talk to them and bring them on board. Encourage them to challenge you and ask you difficult questions. This is how you’ll learn what people are thinking and what they need from you.

8. Talk like a human being
As the Creative Partner at Quietroom, I bang on about this all the time. But good communication is never more important than when people feel out of their depth and are worried about the future. You need to build trust, and the words you use do that – or don’t! So use words that resonate (‘help’ not ‘assist’). Write short sentences. Use lots of pronouns (‘you’ and ‘we’) to make your communication easy for people to understand and respond to. If you don’t speak the same language as your members, they won’t be able to talk to you. And they’re less likely to trust you. Don’t underestimate members. The only reason they won’t understand your communication is if you explain things badly.


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