Social Media and Crisis Communications, FDR Style


81 years ago today, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his first “fireside chat.” In what would become his signature style, FDR spoke directly to the American people at a time of deep economic crisis. It was the beginning of the golden age of radio, and these “fireside chats” marked the point when leaders started to understand the new technology and use it to effectively and simultaneously disseminate information and rhetoric to millions. In just 10 short minutes, FDR held his electorate’s attention long enough to restore their confidence in the banking system.

We’re now in the golden age of social media, and leaders around the world, both in politics and business, are learning how to use powerful new tools to communicate quickly and effectively with huge numbers of people during times of crisis. Like radio in 1933, social media frees users from intermediaries, letting would-be FDRs speak directly with a panicked public. From radio to social media, here are 3 lessons in crisis communications from FDR:

1. Keep Calm and Have a Clear Voice

Delivering powerful messaging during times of crisis has two elements: content and delivery. FDR not only delivered his messaging in a calm manner, but the content of his message was clear and tailored to empower the American people. He framed his analysis of the situation by being relatable, using personal pronouns like “I” and “we”. The fireside chat assured the audience that every step was being taken to ensure that the circumstances that created the crisis would never happen again.

If you get the delivery wrong, the content won’t matter; you’ll have lost the audience. When giving his inaugural fireside chat, FDR’s relaxed voice was almost as important as the content. Be calm, reasonable and most importantly be a human being who is aware of the involved emotions. FDR didn’t preach or promote himself as a leader; instead of speaking down, he spoke with you side by side.

“I recognize that the many proclamations… couched for the most part in banking and legal terms should be explained for the benefit of the average citizen”

When it comes to content, clarity is key. FDR addressed the banking crisis and offered an easily digestible explanation of the situation and its root cause. He told his audience that they needed to understand the facts and correct the rumours. Whether you are a politician or CEO, you can’t expect to gain the attention or respect of your audience until you give them knowledge of what’s really going on. Using high-level language and legal terminology is the quickest way to alienate an audience.

2. Make Promises You Can Keep

As a leader, you have to make promises. In a time of crisis, you must use social media channels to not only offer empathy, but also to communicate what you’re doing to move forward. You may be dealing with hundreds, thousands or possibly even millions of distressed individuals who need to hear something concrete.

Since social media is just written words, make sure your followers know it is actually their leader and not a PR representative. Just as with FDR on the radio, social has the ability to make individuals feel like they are in a fireside conversation, that they are apart of the same “we” as their leader. But you have to communicate that action is being taken. Words like “I” and “we” are even more powerful when followed by “will” or “have.”

“You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work.”

You can’t ask for something without first giving. FDR’s fireside chat helped his audience understand the issue, before communicating clear and actionable steps to fix the situation. Only at the very end did FDR ask the people of his country to have faith, to be fearless and to support the infrastructure he had put in place. The power of his words here lay in admitting the fragility of the system, and communicating that the administration is no more powerful than the population it governs. Here is where FDR used the word “you” instead of “we,” because ultimately it was the people’s choice.

3. Empower Your Audience

People respond to conversation better than just information. In times of crisis, they need to hear from leadership, be calmed and most importantly feel empowered to do their part. Social media is a channel for openness and collaboration and, in many ways, a tool for democracy. In his fireside chat, FDR never told listeners what they were going to do; he told them what “we” would do next and left the choice to act up to each individual. By communicating directly, honestly, calmly, and conversationally using radio, he succeeded in rallying the country to support his solution to the crisis.

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