Forging the Next Generation of Communications Leaders in a Time of Crisis: Insights from Leadership Institute

man at top of mountain

Posted Mar 31, 2020

Things can change so quickly.

On February 22, I was boarding a flight at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, returning to Cincinnati after an energizing two days at the International Association of Business Communicators’ Leadership Institute. Leaders and practitioners from New Zealand to Boston to Atlanta had gathered in Texas to brainstorm ways to advance the profession, create connections and develop strategic communicators. And yes, to sample the world’s best brisket.

Fast-forward to early March: my firm (and a number of others, based on the discussion boards) ran crisis simulations as we ramped up our COVID-19 response plans.

Stay on that fast-forward button: on March 11, the World Health Organization declared the escalating outbreak a pandemic. And as I sit here today, my city (and yours too, probably) is on lockdown.

Things can change so quickly.

And yet – some things haven’t changed at all.

The priorities we wrestled with at Leadership Institute are just as relevant one month later, as we all go on various stages of COVID-19 lockdown, as they were before we touched down in Texas. The questions that communications professionals need to ask (and answer) for ourselves are just as pressing, if not more so, during a crisis:

As COVID-19 has consumed the attention economy and the real economy in addition to endangering lives, I’ve come to appreciate why it’s so important for communicators to take a breath, be deliberate and lean on each other at a time when seemingly the entire business system is playing catch-up. We must understand (and deeply respect the importance of balance sheets and cash flow statements. But we must speak for the people, now more than ever. The next generation of communications leaders is being forged right now, in a pressure-packed environment filled with uncertainty. They will need our leadership.

The status quo is a fragile, ephemeral thing, and it’s gone now. But I’m proud of IABC and the collaborative spirit in which we tackle these challenges…virtually, on lockdown, from our kitchen tables or wherever we make our stand.


Jeremiah McWilliams leads employee communications for North Highland, the leading change and transformation consulting firm. He has a background in journalism, public relations, client services and leadership communications.