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What You Need to Know About Crisis Communication

May 1, 2000
From the book The Crisis Counselor by Jeffrey R. Caponigro, Copyright 2000. Published by Contemporary Books, a division of NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc.

Too many businesses take their employees for granted.

It's easy to assume that they re well-informed, loyal, and positively motivated to help the business succeed in any way possible. This is often true, but many times it's not.

Employees are often the most complex and sensitive of all publics. They believe they have earned the right -- through hard work and loyalty -- to be communicated with on a regular and ongoing basis. They have developed a strong sense of "ownership" by working at the business, and therefore, they feel that they have the right to be particularly critical of all decisions made (which, by the way, they can almost always make better than their bosses).

Employees also look at everything as it relates to them personally. They worry about job security. They are concerned about morale and teamwork. They fear staff layoffs and pay reductions. And most of all, they think about how all of these could affect their careers, quality of life, paychecks, and family obligations.

Almost all of these are communications issues -- managing expectations, keeping employees focused, allaying fears and concerns, and maintaining a sense of excitement and confidence in an organization. You see, employees can be an organization's strongest allies or its greatest opponents. And communications can play a major role in which way they will go.

Here are some issues to sort through when cultivating your employees as company ambassadors rather than town critics.


Why is it important to communicate with my employees during a crisis? Wouldn't they already know what's occurring?
The effective crisis counselor recognizes that employees should be a company's first line of communication in a crisis. They can be your most credible allies or most damaging antagonists.

Depending on the situation, you may sense that your employees are aware of the problem at hand and conclude that you therefore don't need to communicate with them. This would be a mistake, because even without specific communication, employees typically know just enough about a crisis situation to be potentially damaging to the company without guidance and clarification.


Wouldn't employees be the most likely group to be supportive of the organization in a crisis?
You might think support is a given, but employees also can be the most critical and negative of any of your publics. They are like family members who often don't appreciate their parents and are bothered by the smallest faults of their brothers or sisters. Like children in a family, employees need to feel as if you care about them and appreciate their contribution to the group. Failure to meet their expectations for this type of reinforcement during a crisis almost always leads to employee morale problems and an increase in complexity and difficulty m managing events.


How can communications make employees "helpful" to our company in a crisis?
Employees who have sufficient information and feel that the company has met their level of expectation in communicating with them are more likely to:

  • Support the company's position. Employees who feel that they are treated well are more likely to be strong supporters of the business. A sense of family loyalty is established in supportive businesses, and employees m those organizations are like the big brothers protecting their kid sisters. But they won't be loyal unless strong support is first given to them -- most of which is built on communication.
  • Avoid spreading rumors about the situation. Supportive employees, who feel they are communicated with effectively, are less likely to spread damaging rumors about the business or its problem. They will avoid doing anything that they believe might hurt the company, particularly while the business is in a vulnerable state during a crisis.
  • Believe that the company's senior executives are managing the situation as effectively as possible. When morale slips in a business, it is often because employees have lost confidence in the leaders of the organization. Sometimes this occurs based on decisions made by senior management; other times it's simply because employees don't like the way they're being treated. You need employees to feel confident in their organization's leadership during a crisis. They're most likely to be supportive if the level and manner of communications meet their expectations.
  • Reinforce your core messages to fellow employees and other publics. You need the cooperation of employees to understand and help communicate the organization's core messages during a crisis. Those who are supportive are more likely to do so.
  • Maintain focus on their day-to-day responsibilities. Informed employees are less likely to be distracted and overwhelmed by the crisis -- speculating about the company's future plans and second-guessing management decisions.
  • Keep a positive attitude with customers, suppliers, and other employees. You will need your workforce more than ever during a crisis to be your company's goodwill ambassadors. If they are supportive, they are most likely to project a positive attitude that can help persuade customers, suppliers, and other employees to feel the same.

What are the keys to communicating effectively with employees?
The following principles can guide you in communicating with employees during a crisis:

  • Communicate to employees quickly after a crisis has occurred. Employees believe that they have earned, through hard work and loyalty, the right to be told about anything affecting the business before they learn about it elsewhere. This is among the most important factors in a well-managed crisis. Anticipate employee questions, and communicate with all employees openly and honestly about the situation.
  • Clearly state your core messages and reinforce them. Make it clear to the employees what messages will be communicated by the organization. Ask for their help in communicating them.
  • Maintain a regular level of communication. By maintaining a regular pace of' communication, you'll reinforce to employees their importance to the business and improve the likelihood of keeping their support. This policy also helps confirm their assessment that you have control over the situation and are competently managing the crisis.
  • Tell them as much as you believe is appropriate to communicate. It's important to convey to employees that they are trusted and important to the business. They want to know as much as possible and are more likely to be supportive if they feel that they're getting the whole picture in an honest, non-manipulative manner.
  • If you think that employees want to know something that you consider being confidential, explain why it can't be discussed. If an area exists in which you simply can't level with employees, explain to them why you are unable to talk about the subject at this time. They will likely appreciate the honesty and the fact that you've considered their interest.
  • Convey some factors that led to any major decision. One of the biggest mistakes most companies make is simply telling employees what was decided, without amplification or explanation. Employees are more discerning and judgmental than that. They want to hear not only about the decision made but also about the determinants involved. Give them a feel for the rationale and thought processes that were used m arriving at the decision.
  • If you are announcing a difficult decision, such as employee downsizing or plant closings, do so in a fair and compassionate manner. In these type o cases, the employees often remember more about how they were treated than what they were told. Be extra careful to communicate m a fair and compassionate way.
  • Provide more than one opportunity for employees to ask questions, offer feedback, make suggestions, and express concerns. Employees need opportunities during and after a crisis to ask questions, vent frustrations, and work through issues with supervisors and others. Give them opportunities to do so through ways such as one-on-one, department, group, and company-wide meetings; employee town-hall meetings; special employee phone lines; intranet bulletin boards; e-mail messages; and employee surveys.
  • Treat them the way you would want to be treated. This is a good guiding principle to follow in all of your communications. Put yourself in their shoes and determine what, if you were they, you'd like to know. What would you feel the company should be obligated to tell you? In what ways would you want to receive information? How often would you want to know?
  • Make certain all employees are informed about important news at approximately the same time. Releasing news to all employees at one time keeps the message consistent and reduces the chances of someone first hearing about it from another party. This controlled release is easy to do in a smaller organization, but coordination gets increasingly complex in large companies operating over several time zones or in different shifts throughout the day.
  • Communicate with them in an appropriate manner. Consider whether the most effective vehicle is a staff meeting, one-on-one meetings, an employee memo, a letter sent to the home, a mention in an employee newsletter, or some other means. The mode depends on the message to be communicated and whether everyone in the business is hearing the same thing. For instance, if ten employees are being terminated because their product line has been eliminated, they will probably be informed in a group meeting -- followed by subsequent one-on-one meetings. Other employees may be told in a staff meeting or through a memorandum-perhaps with an accompanying question-and-answer document to give them more details.
  • Use an appropriate and effective spokesperson. Give thought to what is being communicated and who, in the business, is the most appropriate and effective person to communicate it. Should the news come from the CEO, or is it more appropriate for it to emanate from someone more directly involved in the decision? Who is the most credible person to make the announcement? Who will likely be the most effective spokesperson? Should there be more than one spokesperson?
  • Inform employees that you will continue to update them as events dictate and follow through with your promise. It is important to remind your employees that they will receive communications as new information is available and as events change. Reinforce to them the fact that they are a top priority and then make sure you follow through to prove it to them.
  • Give them a "call to action." Employees want to be clear on what you're asking them to do. Encourage them to do something. In a crisis, the action might be to help communicate your core messages, remain focused on their jobs, maintain confidence in the company; and refrain from spreading rumors.

In what ways can we communicate with our employees during a crisis?
Many avenues exist to communicate with employees. Here is an overview of some you may want to take, along with suggestions on when each might be most appropriate:

  • Staff meetings. A staff meeting usually works best when the company's number of employees is small enough to get everyone in the same room or at multiple sites via video teleconference. This format is practical when the announcement will greatly impact the organization, and everyone needs to hear the same messages communicated by the same person at the same time. Plenty of time should be left to answer employee questions and listen to their comments and suggestions.
  • Departmental meetings. Meetings at the departmental level are most appropriate when the announcement is less critical or when the company is too large to conduct a meeting with the entire staff. Departmental meetings work best when the information affects some departments or functions in a company more than others. After being briefed by the CEO or other senior officials, managers of each department can put the announcement in perspective for their specific areas, and convey their support and confidence in the company's actions. As in the staff meetings, it is important to leave sufficient time for answering questions and listening to employee concerns and comments.
  • One-on-one meetings. Individual meetings are most effective when an announcement affects only a few employees, and it is important that they understand the decision and its particular impact on them. One-on-one meetings should be held when especially sensitive and serious information is being communicated. This would include notification of layoffs and terminations, government or company investigations, quality problems, and lawsuits affecting the employee.
  • Memo to employees at work. A memo can be in the form of either electronic mail or an actual paper copy (or both). Employee memos can help underscore key points after staff or department meetings or provide information that doesn't warrant separate meetings.
  • Letter to employees at home. Letters are an option when an announcement is of sufficient importance that spouses and significant others will be greatly interested m learning about the company's official position on the matter.
  • Q&A document. As mentioned previously, it is more effective to anticipate employee questions and answer them before you're put on the defensive. A document with answers to likely questions could accompany the memos or letters. The Q&A provides opportunities to restate your key messages as well as suggest ways to answer similar questions when they are addressed to the employees.
  • Telephone calls. Phone calls should be considered when you're communicating news that dictates fast dissemination but isn't so personal that the employee will be offended by being told in that way. Although it sounds ridiculous, in some antiquated organizations, employees are notified of their terminations by telephone. Phone calls work best when only a few people must be informed, and the notification doesn't require the coordination and timing of several managers contacting multiple employees simultaneously. An audio-only teleconference involving several people, however, can be an effective tool when groups of employees from different sites need to be informed about news quickly and given opportunities to ask questions and offer feedback.
  • Toll-free phone line. A toll-flee phone line can be useful when employees total into the thousands and are dispersed among several geographic areas. The phone line can be used to provide answers to employee questions, or relay, questions that can be answered through some other vehicle such as E-mail, voice mail, or a company newsletter. The most effective phone lines are those that use real people -- not machines -- to answer the calls, if the phone attendants are trained properly'.
  • Employee newsletter or special bulletin. Newsletters can be handy vehicles to reinforce key messages and remind employees about company information and actions. However, most company newsletters are published on a monthly or quarterly basis and, because of that, are of limited benefit during a crisis. Many organizations produce a special-edition, bulletin-type newsletter to help communicate more timely information -- but in a less formal manner than an employee memo or letter.
  • Bulletin-board notice. Most companies provide bulletin boards in or near employee-gathering locations in the office where notices and memos are displayed. These outlets are useful in maintaining a longer life for important information, but they shouldn't be treated as the sole means of informing employees about critical, sensitive items. Many organizations have electronic bulletin boards that can be accessed online or through the system's local area network.
  • Paycheck stuffers. Key messages can be repeated in memo or notice form and placed inside employee payroll envelopes, This can be a good way to reinforce previously communicated messages but shouldn't be used to convey important news about policies or decisions that have never before been communicated to employees.
  • Videotape presentation. A video backgrounder can be useful when the information to be presented involves seeing or touring something that is impractical for all employees to view in person. The video medium can be used to deliver a "personal" message from the CEO to employees, with copies of the tape distributed to each department or sent to employee homes. This format can be adopted to help illustrate and emphasize key points, to explain something complex, and to convey from the CEO a sense of' concern and empathy.
  • An intranet. Many large corporations have intranets for communications. These are internal Web sites on the Internet that are accessible only through previously approved company servers and/or by using confidential domain names or specific passwords known only by employees. The internal Web site is used to update employees about important information, provide details on new pricing and policies, disseminate Q&A interviews, and seek input and questions from employees. This source is another effective way to reinforce key messages and to convey a strong sense of proactive communication; however, its effectiveness is limited because employees must access the information themselves.

Do you have any other advice about the various ways to communicate with employees?
Yes, here are a few more words of advice for maximizing your communications with your workforce:

  • Segment your employees, and determine the key messages for each group and who would be the most appropriate contact with them. Many types of employees may work at the same company, and distinctions among the classes can justify the use of differing communications approaches, core messages, and even spokespersons, Classifications might include senior management, plant workers, union membership, corporate-headquarters staff, and branch employees.
  • Recognize that sometimes even internal documents get into the wrong hands. Write everything intended for internal distribution with the sensitivity and care you would use if it were going to appear on the front page of your daily newspaper. This caveat includes not only letters and memos distributed to employees, but also e-mail notes that can inadvertently be sent to the wrong address (or be forwarded to several people with little effort).
  • Don't be flippant, sarcastic, or cute -- someone will surely misinterpret what you've said. If you're communicating about something as serious as a crisis, avoid the temptation to be funny or sarcastic. These ill-advised attitudes almost always will be misinterpreted by someone and may make the situation worse.
  • Reinforce your core messages; as the old saying goes, "Tell them what you're going to tell them ... tell them ... and tell them what you've told them." Clarity and repetition are the keys to effective communications. Keep your core messages simple, and deliver them in a clear and easy-to-understand manner.
  • Provide sufficient opportunities to listen to employees, seek their suggestions, and answer their questions. Give all workers opportunities to share their ideas and vent any frustrations. Consider the suggestions, and use them where appropriate.
  • And remember the best advice of all: "Communicate with employees the way you would want to be treated if you were in their shoes." You will almost always do well if you follow this guiding principle.

TAKE-AWAY TIPS TO CONSIDER

  • Ensure that your employees are told about your crisis from the company before they learn about it elsewhere.
  • Communicate specific key messages to employees, and ask them to help communicate them as appropriate.
  • Treat employees the way you would want to be treated if you were in their shoes.
  • Explain how you arrived at a difficult or controversial decision.
  • Keep employees up-to-date on any changing situations.
  • Provide opportunities for employees to ask questions.
  • Thank employees for their support. Don't take it for granted.