Workplace communication in times of uncertainty - lessons learnt from the ‘mad cow disease’ public h

The lessons learnt from the 1990’s bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) epidemic highlight that for any established systems/structures/organisations to thrive (or survive) during these uncertain times, they need to maintain a genuine connection and engender a culture of trust within their community – and that effective and appropriate communication is key to enabling this.

We have begun the year faced with uncertainty, and the only thing that is becoming more certain is that there will be more uncertainty.

The 1990’s BSE epidemic was a time of great uncertainty in the UK, threatening public health, food safety and supply, and the livestock industry. What was left after the threat had passed was a severely damaged relationship between the public, science and the UK Government. There was now a crisis of confidence in the public towards scientific advice provided to the Government and in the Government itself. This loss of confidence has been shown to have serious flow-on effects leading to a persistence of doubt, or downright distrust, by the UK public in their leaders and the information they convey.

This vignette provides one example of a complex multi-stakeholder situation. While the decline in trust cannot be pin-pointed to one simple factor, we do know that the communication style employed by leaders – one of inconsistent one-way directives issued to the public – contributed significantly.

In times of uncertainty messages should be clear, succinct and from a single source of truth. They must be time appropriate and factual – acknowledging uncertainties and at the same time taking care not to insight undue panic or alarm. Ensuring the integrity of the information provided and honesty is maintained throughout all communications is essential for sustaining long-term trust. Messages should be easily repeatable and disseminated broadly across numerous platforms to ensure saturation.

Crisis communication is time critical – it is a time to be direct. However, we must caution that maintaining a purely directive style over a long period of time can become damaging - as seen from the UK BSE epidemic. This style quickly becomes alienating to the receiver as it neglects to consider or address their changing needs and concerns.

Workplace communications in times of uncertainty should be:

  • Directive

  • Time sensitive

  • Clear and succinct - brevity is key in creating an easily understood message

  • From a single source of truth and authority - consistency in who is communicating and across which communication platform

  • Disseminated and repeatable - through broad reaching and easily accessed platforms - be clear on what platform formal communications will be issued

  • Truthful - acknowledge uncertainties

  • Accurate and factual - maintain the integrity of third party information (for example, scientific or health advice)

  • Respectful of the receiver - take care not to cause undue panic or alarm - avoid the use of highly emotive language

And ideally, if time is not an immediate issue

  • Two-way - providing an opportunity for feedback - to gain insight into the needs and concerns of the receiver (through formal or informal means)

In addition, all communications should ideally be accessible and easily understood by the intended audience (requiring considerations of language ability, or disability), and available on the appropriate platform.

Enduring communication throughout times of uncertainty should also include an opportunity for feedback enabling leaders to gain insight into the needs and concerns of their community and address them. This can be as simple as including a contact telephone number or email address in communications, holding a separate forum, meeting or Q&A session to solicit views, or directly seeking out feedback from the community through informal or formal approaches.

Employing these insights assists us leaders to respond to our communities, engendering a culture of trust and genuine connection through honest and clear communication during these uncertain times.

Here at Rapid Context we are experts in workplace culture, we can help you understand and make targeted changes to your workplace. We use high quality defensible research to meet urgent needs without compromising rigor. We assist organisations in solving sensitive and complex problems related to policy change or development, reform, culture change, or targeted issues such as leadership. Our experienced team of specialists analyse issues using different lenses and vantage points – not off the shelf models - to provide a more complete appreciation of the problem and develop solutions that are tailored to your specific context. Please send enquiries to

Tegan Donald is a research consultant at Rapid Context. Tegan has a diverse research background working in both the academic and professional realms of the university sector, specialising in science communication. Tegan has a Bachelor of Photonics (majoring in Physics) and a PhD in science communication.

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