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Jump start more effective workplace communication by messaging with pictures rather than words.

During a crisis, frightened humans need two things with equal urgency: the rapid communication of crucial facts and the feeling that we are not alone, that we are in this together. This article discusses the Crisis Communication Cycle, the “communicate-listen two step” lays out six easy steps for effective, next-level Post-Covid Crisis workplace communication for the Next Big Thing. Covid-19 is exactly the kind of crisis humans have difficulty understanding. Slow-moving yet omnipresent, lethal, silent, invisible. It has made us isolated, disconnected and alone. Our ability to overcome this enemy is based on our capacity to effectively communicate its seriousness and the means to keep it from spreading.

This article pulls on a strand of a recent University of Amsterdam study testing the effectiveness of animation in workplace communication, told in the Post-Covid form of an animated story: https://youtu.be/SH7QzlPfyb8

Understanding the problem

Covid-19 has triggered a global regime of unprecedented mass learning. Less than a year ago, who had even heard of the terms “social distancing”, “contact tracing” or “lockdowns”? Now, as 2020 gratefully winds to a close, almost everyone has been exposed to the basics of viral transmission.

This pandemic is exactly the kind of crisis we humans have difficulty understanding; slow-moving and at the same time spreading at the speed of light, invisible and everywhere around us. A silent, patient killer that shape-shifts and eludes. It has sent us underground, making us feel disconnected and alone.

Often, people don’t take action until disaster is visibly unfolding before them. Covid-19 created the ideal conditions for “normalcy bias”, the tendency to underestimate the scope and scale of a crisis and its impact; our belief that “everything will eventually work out”, and that life, post covid, will “return to normal” [1]. The flip side of this, “abnormalcy bias”, is our tendency to underestimate the ability of people to function during a crisis[2]. This leads to a fear of causing widespread panic and withholding information. Both of these biases can coexist peacefully in the minds of leaders, and both need to be overcome for effective crisis communication.

Effective post covid workplace communication depends on conversation rather than one-way messaging.

Good crisis response is a competitive business advantage; organizations that do it well recover quickly and even sustainably exceed pre-crisis value with stocks closing an average 7% higher one year later[3]. A poor response rocks an organization back on its heels, implementing ill-considered, scattershot responses.

A crisis cannot be met with a prepared, gamed-out response plan. Only fast-paced creative thinking can identify solutions to quickly changing scenarios followed by disciplined action.

The cycle of crisis communication — understand, strategize, implement, adjust — is circular and iterative, and supported by a disciplined communicate-listen two-step.

A small group of cloistered executives cannot collect all the facts necessary to adequately inform their decisions. The first step, understand, is fed by robust listening channels that gather and fast-track valuable information from the ground. Fundamental empowerment of ground staff is essential for their reports to reach leadership across priority channels.

The second step, strategize, depends on the ground team’s ability to speak truth to power, and the degree to which the organizational culture nurtures it. Good decisions are never made in a vacuum based on the intuition and ideology of a single person, but by a chorus of multidisciplinary voices, each supplying a strand of actionable intelligence.

Change for crisis response is both short-term, temporary (working from home) and long-term, permanent (digital transformation and upgraded tooling). Both are crucial to weather the storm and pandemic-proof the future. Once short and long-term actions are determined, the hard work of implementation begins. This requires the communication of change that is easy to understand and quick to share.

From the first outgoing message, the eyes and ears of the communicator need to be open. How did the message land? Comprehensible to non-native speakers? Accessible to impaired colleagues? Considerate of minority cultural and religious norms? With each burst of outgoing information, an equal and opposite incoming response is essential to guide adjustments before the process repeats 24 hours later.

Improving our workplace communication is essential in the post covids world.
Feeling alone in the post covid world.

Tip 1: Short and daily

The communication cycle repeats daily during a crisis. This level of internal and external communication density might feel like a heavy lift for many organizations, but events on the ground change hour by hour. Waiting for all the facts to emerge before saying anything is a common mistake leaders make. It’s OK to admit that we don’t have all the answers, that there’s nothing new to report, and that things could be different tomorrow.

Tip 2: Go visual

Visual communication is the key to making complex concepts understandable for everyone. It reduces the amount of text needed to make a point. It’s a creative and practical way to message, leaping above written language to a level beyond nationality, culture, age, disability or education. Validated infographics rapidly disseminate accurate public health information; take the elegant and widely disseminated “Flatten the Curve” graphic explaining a complex national strategy for saving the maximum number of lives[4].

Governmental, healthcare and media institutions have successfully leveraged comics to tell the Covid-19 story; they are a highly potent means of presenting facts in an engaging, understandable way thanks to the visuals, limited text, characters and a storyline[5].

Tip 3: Go multichannel social

Never before have so many people engaged globally with one topic across the social media as during the pandemic. Nearly all of us have been exposed to debates in our social spheres weighing safety against the economy or when and how to vaccinate[6].

During this time, we have an unprecedented need for “one truth”; unbiased public health information that keeps us ahead of events. Instead, we find ourselves flailing in a shower of converging streams of uncensored information thanks to our level of social media immersion, where truth is determined by our browsing history and by complex algorithms[7].

Social media allows us to quickly broadcast vital information but equally enables the spread of misinformation and outrage magnification[8]. This can be countered with calmly factual, repeated, concise, visual messaging which is compelling and easy to share. Use the meme, the comic, the infographic. Leverage all channels from TikTok to WeChat to YouTube to Twitter to Facebook and Instagram; each plays a different role.

Tip 4: Project emotion, empathy

We look to leaders for guidance, for better or worse. The tone of voice and emotion they project are as important as the words they say. The crossroads of “deliberate calm”, our ability to detach and think clearly about a crisis, and “grounded optimism”, the reasoned confidence that it can be overcome, is the ideal emotional starting place for any messaging[9]. If leaders show excessive cool in the face of obviously difficult conditions, they lose credibility[10]. Equally, leaders who overwhelm us with doomsday scenarios are tuned out and ignored.

Once leaders decide what to do, they must act with resolve. Visible decisiveness pairs well with authentic empathy and understanding of hardship and tragedy in general[11]. Acknowledge sacrifice without taking an upbeat, “rah-rah” tone; this shows competence that is well-informed.

Tip 5: Celebrate the efforts of those on the ground

Extraordinary efforts are expected of every member of an organization, most often at the lowest levels. Without the bravery of grocery workers putting their lives at risk in the early days of the crisis, before plexiglass dividers were installed on every corner, or delivery people bringing us our medicines and xbox games, none of us could survive. Executives can easily and comfortably work from home by Zoom while ground teams require their physical presence to do their jobs.

Operational workers need to take center stage in crisis communications. They need to be thanked in word and deed, with financial rewards and recognition, their photos and personal stories splashed across communication channels. This is a win on many fronts; it helps morale and inspires sacrifice on all levels of the organization. It’s good PR. Boosts employer and brand marketing and drives engagement. The stories go viral and make everyone proud, at all levels of the organization.

Tip 6: Get Epic

Take a step back. Realize we’re in the midst of a defining moment in history. For decades to come, we’ll remember the year we wore masks, when Diwali went digital. We will recall events based on whether they fell BC (Before Covid-19) or AV (After Vaccine). Generations will identify how it affected their experience in primary school, university or retirement.

The Covid-19 story is an epic of mythological proportions, an unfolding story of extraordinary things happening to ordinary people. We and our world are changing in ways we can see and in ways we can’t. While most of us experience the pandemic as dull and inconvenient, many of us are exposed to risk every day.

Covid-19 is our universal enemy. Our communication should reflect and support our singular efforts, our grit and alignment. Everyone a hero, even those of us on the couch ordering pizza.


[1] Piller, I., Zhang, J., & Li, J. (2020). Linguistic diversity in a time of crisis: Language challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Multilingua, 39(5), 503–515.

[2] Omer, H., & Alon, N. (1994). The continuity principle: A unified approach to disaster and trauma. American Journal of Community Psychology, 22(2), 273–287.

[3] Garcia, H. F. (2006). Effective leadership response to crisis. Strategy & Leadership.

[4] Ryoko Hamaguchi, Saman Nematollahi, Daniel J Minter, Picture of a pandemic: visual aids in the COVID-19 crisis, Journal of Public Health, Volume 42, Issue 3, September 2020, Pages 483–485, https://doi.org/10.1093/pubmed/fdaa080

[5] Kearns, C., & Kearns, N. (2020). The role of comics in public health communication during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of visual communication in medicine, 43(3), 139–149.

[6] Piller, I., Zhang, J., & Li, J. (2020). Linguistic diversity in a time of crisis: Language challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Multilingua, 39(5), 503–515.

[7] Ryoko Hamaguchi, Saman Nematollahi, Daniel J Minter, Picture of a pandemic: visual aids in the COVID-19 crisis, Journal of Public Health, Volume 42, Issue 3, September 2020, Pages 483–485, https://doi.org/10.1093/pubmed/fdaa080

[8] Malecki, K., Keating, J. A., & Safdar, N. (2020). Crisis communication and public perception of COVID-19 risk in the era of social media. Clinical Infectious Diseases.

[9] D’Auria, G., & De Smet, A. (1994). Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges. Psychology, 22(2), 273–87.

[10] D’Auria, G., & De Smet, A. (1994). Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges. Psychology, 22(2), 273–87.

[11] Garcia, H. F. (2006). Effective leadership response to crisis. Strategy & Leadership.