Under Pressure

Bad things happen, so companies need to have a plan in place to deal with a crisis.

November 10, 2013

A video about a Starbucks employee writing a crude comment on a customer’s coffee drink goes viral. Walmart is accused of bribing officials in Mexico. A trainer is killed by an orca at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida.

Incidents of organizations getting egg on their face or confronted with serious scandals are commonplace. And especially in an era of 24-hour news, social media and greater transparency into corporations, managing crises today is forcing companies to pay more attention to the way they handle employee communications even as they work to shape external public relations.

Employees upset by their employer’s behavior may take to Twitter or Facebook to sound off. Alternatively, workers can rally in support of embattled bosses. Benefiting from, rather than being buffeted by, the internal workforce’s response requires regular, honest communication to employees during troubled times, said Anne Grinols, an assistant dean at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business.

Grinols, who specializes in business communication, also said executives ought not to wait for a crisis to build up trust and goodwill among their workers.

“Credibility fuels communication,” Grinols said. “If you don’t have credibility, you can talk all you want and nobody believes you.”

Bad News Is Nothing New
The challenge of wrestling with bad news is not entirely new for companies. The list of major crises in recent decades includes the Bhopal gas incident that killed thousands in India and the tainted Tylenol deaths in the 1980s, the Pepsi syringe scare of 1993 and the BP gulf oil spill in 2010.

With earlier scandals, companies had to address employee questions and concerns, but their bigger communications worry was how the mainstream media would treat the story. However, things have changed dramatically in the past decade or so.

Employees now have the ability to speak up and out about what their employer does — and they do so regularly.

‘The biggest thing is don’t put your head in the sand.’
—Steve Roop, general manager of talent solutions at Glassdoor

In fact, more and more organizations are encouraging rank-and-file employees to talk for and about them. There have been plenty of gaffes in this new era of “brand ambassadors.” Domino’s Pizza employees posting a gross pizza-making video to YouTube comes to mind. But there’s no going back, said Don Tapscott, co-author of the book “The Naked Corporation: How the Age of Transparency Will Revolutionize Business.” In a recent speech, he called on companies to embrace greater openness and “undress for success.”

A case in point is the role employee social media activity played during a scary situation at Discovery Communications Inc. a few years ago. In September 2010, a gunman took three hostages at the media company’s Silver Spring, Maryland, headquarters. News of the incident was broken by a Discovery Communications employee, who posted a photo of a law enforcement official to Twitpic. During the hourslong standoff, employees used social media channels to tell family members, friends and followers that they were safe.  

Afterward, the company appreciated the way social media allowed employees to tell the story. “With a combination of corporate blogging and then using platforms to push the message out, we reached so many more people,” Gayle Weiswasser, then-vice president of social media communications at Discovery, told online magazine Social Media Examiner. “It’s a much more personal way to engage with and communicate directly with our fans. In a crisis situation, the speed and virality of social media just can’t be paralleled.”

From the Water Cooler to Cyberspace
How well a company handles trouble used to be discussed by employees largely at office water coolers. Now workers are quite willing to discuss what goes on at their firms online. One place people often talk publicly about their employers is Glassdoor, the employee feedback website. At Glassdoor, employees post anonymous reviews of their companies as well as the organization’s CEO. To win over workers amid scandal, it is important to admit any problems and then lay out a plan to fix what’s broken, said

Steve Roop, general manager of talent solutions at Glassdoor. “The biggest thing is don’t put your head in the sand,” Roop said.

Another key is to give workers affected by big news — such as a merger or a layoff — advance notice, Roop said. This might mean mere minutes before sharing the news with the broader public. But workers would rather hear about trouble from company leaders than external sources. Heightened transparency means professionals in human resources and public relations must be on their toes, Roop said. “It puts a lot more stress on PR and HR to do this stuff right.”

HR and PR folks were under stress during the economic downturn a few years ago. There was plenty of bad news then to share with employees, such as salary freezes, benefit cuts and layoffs. Insurance provider Aflac Inc. was not among the firms that laid off employees during the recession. But the Columbus, Georgia-based company did have to spread unpleasant tidings, said Audrey Boone Tillman, Aflac’s executive vice president of corporate services. The company severely limited travel and cut budgets for external consultants, said Tillman, whose duties include corporate communications. Aflac’s senior leaders themselves broke the news about the belt-tightening — the CEO and senior managers held a town-hall meeting.

This involvement by high-level leaders wasn’t out of the ordinary for Aflac, Tillman said. Executives regularly communicate with rank-and-file employees. Tillman, for example, has “Sip and Snacks With Audrey” meetings with employees in different units — complete with coffee and sweet rolls.

“Any crisis should be just a continuation of how you’ve led,” Tillman said. “You can’t be Oz behind the curtain.”

In fact the wizards of Aflac were front and center during another crisis that affected the firm and its employees: the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan. Senior leaders took off from their Georgia headquarters to be with employees and policyholders in Japan. No employees were among the victims of the tsunami, but family members of Aflac employees were affected, Tillman said.

Aflac’s penchant for a face-to-face approach to communication in tough times makes a lot of sense, said Alison Davis, CEO and founder of the employee communications consulting firm Davis & Co. For one thing, in-person conversations and meetings foster greater candor from executives who may be more circumspect in written or video-recorded messages. They also give employees a chance to pose questions. And because face-to-face meetings often are led by managers or unit supervisors known to employees, this method of sharing news tends to be more believable than a faceless, official memo.

“You tend to trust your manager or your leader,” Davis said.

Another key, Davis said, is having a plan in place for communicating with the workforce. One of her clients recently faced a crisis, but did not have a method for sharing messages rapidly with all of its employees. So it not only had to worry about the message to give to workers, but also how it was going to distribute it effectively.

“A crisis is not the time to build a communications infrastructure,” Davis said.

Email is one of the first technologies companies think about in reaching out to workers. But many organizations in the retail, hospitality and manufacturing industries have significant numbers of people without immediate access to email accounts. Alternatives include systems for texting mobile phones, printed documents and local, face-to-face meetings.

Among the best cases of employee communications during a scandal is Pepsi’s handling of a scare after syringes were found in some of its drinks, Baylor’s Grinols said. Day after day, employees were updated about the crisis, during which Pepsi vigorously defended itself and opened its factories to the press to show how difficult it would be to insert needles into its cans. Ultimately, federal regulators sided with Pepsi, and the syringe problem was proven to be a hoax. “This was very good internal and external communication,” Grinols said. “And they succeeded. Pepsi’s reputation was not hurt at all.”

One take-away from the Pepsi case is that timeliness matters during a crisis. If anything, timeliness has become more important given that tweets, posts and videos can go viral so rapidly. Consider, for example, the incident in 2011 when a Starbucks employee wrote the word “bitch” on a customer’s cup in New York. The angry customer promptly called a news station. Its segment on the slight quickly spread to popular news site the Huffington Post, where it eventually was shared more than 3,500 times.
Starbucks did not respond to a request for comment about the incident, but the coffee company is among the firms that encourage employees to express themselves in the social media world. Its social media guidelines includes getting the facts right — a key factor in crises: “Your voice can be powerful, so don’t spread false information, rumors or misleading claims about Starbucks, our products and services, or other partners.”

If an organization doesn’t know all the answers during a crisis, it should concede as much while saying it is working on the issue, Davis said. Aflac’s Tillman has a similar perspective about sharing information with employees. “Tell them,” she said. “And if you can’t tell them, tell them that you can’t.”

Ed Frauenheim is Workforce's associate editorial director. Comment below or email him at Follow Frauenheim on Twitter at @edfrauenheim.