Communicating change during a crisis

In the past, the easiest way to introduce change was slowly.  This gave people time to accept the changes and to adapt to new ways of doing things. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the current Covid-19 crisis, time is not something that most companies or governments have a lot of right now.  Decisions have to be made quickly and then communicated to audiences clearly.

And therein lies the problem.

Let’s look at a case in point.  Last week, The Guardian ran an article about an ongoing conflict between the UK government and the Travelodge hotel group.  Apparently, Travelodge evicted all the homeless families who were living in Travelodge hotels as part of a government housing scheme. Travelodge did this thinking they were following new government rules which shut down hotels in Britain as part of the lockdown measures.  The government said Travelodge shouldn’t have done this.  However, the hotel chain claims they were within their rights to do so. Now, hundreds of homeless families have nowhere to live.

A spokesperson for the UK government said they were “absolutely clear” that hotels which housed the homeless must remain open.  But were they?  Let’s look at the wording on the official government website:

“Where hotels, hostels, and B&Bs are providing rooms to support homeless and other vulnerable people such as those who cannot safely stay in their home, through arrangements with local authorities and other public bodies, they may remain open.”

After the hotel chain began evicting residents, The Ministry of Housing sent this tweet in an attempt to clarify the position:

“All hotels, hostels, and B&Bs providing rooms to support people who are homeless through arrangements with local authorities and other public bodies – should remain open and are not affected by the guidance issued yesterday.”

Really, the hotel chain needed to allow the homeless families back into their hotels.  That is the spirit of the guidance.  But people (and their lawyers) will pick apart these things word for word.  And this is where the message can get muddled.

Part of the problem lies in the modal verbs used in each of these cases.  In the official government guidance, it says that hotels housing the homeless may stay open. We use the modal verb may when giving permission.  So, the sentence isn’t saying they must stay open.  It’s saying they have permission to stay open.  A hotel owner could read that and think, “OK, I can stay open if I want, but I don’t want to.  So, I’m closing.”

The updated guidance on Twitter didn’t help.  The Ministry used the modal verb should.  But should indicates giving advice.  It’s like when my doctor tells me that I should lose weight.  I know I should lose weight, but I have a great love for both wine and cheese.  It’s a suggestion, but probably not one I’m going to do anything about. So, the tweet is suggesting (in a very strong way) that the hotels stay open.  But it also gives them room to ignore the suggestion in the same way as I ignore my doctor.

In a case like this one, where something has to be followed, the only modal verb that should be used is must.  The guidance should have read:

“All hotels must close unless they support homeless and other vulnerable people…in which case these hotels must remain open.”

This makes it clear that there is no other option.

Now let’s look at the letter that the Minister for Homelessness, Luke Hall, sent to Travelodge to try and get the homeless back into the hotel.  It’s not much better.

“If you have closed services for homeless people today as a result of the measures announced this week, I would be very grateful if you could reverse these decisions as soon as possible.’’

I would be grateful if you could – this is the softening technique I teach my clients if they are asking a colleague to do them a favour.  And, of course, if you ask someone for a favour, it is possible they will say “no.”

There is a time to “speak through the flowers,” as my German clients call it.  This is not one of them.  In a case like this, you are not asking for a favour.  You are clarifying an official position, and in doing so, you must make it clear that there is no other option.  Instead, the government’s letter should have looked like this:

“If you have closed services for homeless people today as a result of the measures announced this week, you must reverse these decisions within the next 24 hours and allow these families back into your hotels.’’

If you want to soften this, you could add: “Please accept our apologies if the original guidance was unclear.”

(Just as an aside:  I hate the phrase “as soon as possible.”  It’s very unclear.  My idea of as soon as possible might be the end of the week.  Your idea might be the end of the day. Skip it and say when you really need something done.  It will save a lot of headaches and misunderstandings.)

Before you communicate changes in your organisation, determine the level of necessity.  Here is a chart you can refer to.

Here are a few other tips:

  • Save the strong mandates for the things that really can’t be done any other way. Don’t overuse them.
  • Studies have shown that if you give a reason, more people will do what you ask them to do. For example, “Please schedule all video calls between 10-2 because that is the time our internet provider guaranteed the best coverage.”
  • Remember to show empathy and to thank people for being flexible during a difficult time.

Being clear doesn’t mean you sacrifice being polite.  Being clear means that you won’t hear angry employees complaining for months on end that “no one told us what to do.”  And they will.  Trust me.

That’s all for this week.  What are your pressing communications or Business English questions?  Let me know, I’d love to hear from you.


My name is Laura Marshallsay, and I help professionals improve their English so they can communicate to the world with confidence and clarity

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