It’s not news: business crises happen every day. Preparation and communication are paramount to successfully mitigating the impact of the crisis on the organization. How we respond to the crisis determines whether it becomes just a nuisance, or a business-defining issue.
In a crisis, employees are arguably your most important stakeholders. Yet often they are overlooked in the midst of managing the issue at hand and responding to reporters. Here are some strategies and tips to help keep your employees informed and to engage them as brand ambassadors when crisis strikes.
- Communicate regularly and seek employee feedback
Build up a trust bank with employees ahead of time by communicating consistently and treating them with respect. If you interact regularly with the workforce then you don’t have to scramble to put something in place in a crisis. Cascading information is useful for most everyday news, but communication directly from the C-suite to the frontline is critical in a crisis.
- Set up internal crisis communication channels in advance
You should already have an external ‘dark website’ to use in case of crisis. Build a similar intranet ‘dark site’- using discussion boards, blogs, Q&A’s, etc., that are ready for quick activation if needed. Set up all the correct permissions and identify/train moderators in advance. Build in redundancies in case some of your key communications channels (such as email) are unavailable during a crisis.
- Tell employees first and anticipate their questions
Even a few minutes of advance notice makes a big difference on the trust scale. To the extent possible, offer employees facts rather than general reassurances. We humans are hard-wired to assume the worst, and we’ll fill in the blanks in the absence of meaningful facts. Anticipate likely questions and provide honest answers as quickly as you are able.
- Use every communications channel available
Remind employees of the best places to get the most up-to-date information from management. Use both high-tech and low-tech tools, keeping in mind that there are employee groups that don’t have immediate access to email or websites/intranets.
Communicate face-to-face as much as possible. Involve line managers in communications as the first person that employees look to for information. This approach builds trust, adds credibility to the messages and fosters two-way communication. Video conferences and video messaging are effective alternatives in large organizations and those with multiple locations.
- Make social media your friend
Know what external social media channels your employees use. There is a wide variety of social monitoring tools available, including free and paid services. Monitor company pages– both official and unofficial– on Facebook, Twitter and other social sites to gauge reactions from employees and others.
Use an internal social media platform to listen and interact with employees BEFORE crisis hits. Yammer (www.yammer.com) is one of the most popular platforms for behind-the-firewall social networking and collaboration, but there are other tools available as well.
- Brevity is Best
Internal news should be as factual and complete as anything distributed externally. Give all employees the same information. Lean on leaders to share and reinforce messages.
Try using a 75-word guideline– this is about the amount that people can retain and repeat accurately, even in a crisis. Provide frequent, short bursts of information. Use simple terms and short sentences.
- Learn from the crisis and start preparing for the next one
As part of the debriefing process, seek feedback from employees at all levels to assess the effectiveness of your internal communications efforts. Adjust the plan and update the tools based on what you learn.
|Common Employee Communications Tools|
|· Break room streaming message boards and video messaging|
|· Bulletin boards (the low-tech kind)|
|· CEO and management blogs|
|· Chat rooms|
|· Company website(s)|
|· Desktop video messages|
|· Employee hotline|
|· Feedback channels (hotline, email, intranet, internal social, surveys)|
|· Intranet alerts and crawlers|
|· Management memos|
|· Mass notification tool (e.g., Everbridge)|
|· Mass voicemail messages|
|· Newsletter(s) and daily bulletins|
|· Postal mail to employee homes|
|· Press releases and statements|
|· Push desktop notifications to computers|
|· Employee Q&A|
|· Screensaver messages|
|· Supervisor face-2-face discussions|
|· Talking points for managers|
|· Team/department meetings|
|· Text messaging to company devices|
|· Town hall meetings|
|· Video conferences|
It is neither quick nor easy, but if you plan ahead and prepare to communicate with employees in a crisis you can better protect the brand, minimize misinformation, mitigate the impact and return the business to normal as quickly as possible.
Author’s Note: This is an abbreviated version of Deb Hileman’s article, “In a Snap: 15 Tips for Better, Faster Employee Communication in a Crisis,” which was published recently in the PRNews Press book, The Book of Crisis Management Strategies and Tactics, Vol. 8, published in June 2015.