When an organization enters into a crisis situation, immediately the problem as well as its magnitude is addressed, teams are assembled and begin to process the best way to manage the crisis. Usually this involves dealing with the actual incident to stop the problem, then the focus shifts to how best to communicate with the media and public stockholders to minimize damage from the crisis. These steps sound simple, but they can be extremely challenging in the midst of a crisis. They can take place quickly or drag out several days, weeks or months.
One element of communication often overlooked in times of an organization’s crisis is its internal communication. Sure, the CEOs and communication professionals are remain in constant contact, but does it stop there? Crisis communicator Neil Chapman states that everyone in an organization is a communicator. Perhaps Chapman’s most notable work was unifying the crisis response command center for the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He said within the context of this massive crisis, spanning multiple organizations, he felt it was imperative for the entire response team to be on the same page – everyone from the boardroom to those cleaning up on the beach.
The remainder of this post will emphasize the importance of communication within the entire organization and best practices for accomplishing this in the face of a crisis.
Employees are perhaps an organization’s most important stockholders. In challenging and uncertain times of crisis, they should be valued enough to be included in the communication process. They need to know what’s going on and be reassured that better days are ahead for the organization. “It [communication] is essential for the employees to respect their organization” (MSG). When they are knowledgeable about the problem and the solution, they can be more of an asset to the organization. During difficult times, it takes teamwork to get through it.
Communicating with all employees also provides a level of transparency and contributes to a team atmosphere. It can prevent employees from speaking negatively about the organization and the crisis or spreading false information.
Although an organization cannot predict every type of crisis that could possibly occur, they can prepare a general procedure of how to respond to unfavorable events. Planning a framework of communication is exponentially easier to do prior to a crisis. Many times crisis brings chaos and an organization’s response can be much faster and more appropriate if things are in place beforehand. The following steps can best prepare an organization to handle internal communication if a crisis should arise:
Maintain positive work environments and encouraging employee relationships. These two concepts benefit an organization in daily operations but are invaluable resources during challenges of a crisis. Rarely does a true crisis come to a resolution by an individual or one department. It usually takes several internal and sometimes external divisions to resolve the conflict. If interpersonal and interdepartmental communication is in good standing, the organization has a head start in its response.
Establish effective communication platforms. An organization must determine the best way to communicate with employees. In most cases, Email is preferred. Although this may be an effective communication tool, it’s important to have multiple modalities to reach everyone in the target internal audience. Depending on the organization, more traditional methods like face-to-face meetings or conference calls may be necessary. Notification systems such as SMS text messaging could be an important tool in cases of emergency where timeliness is a factor.
CEOs and senior executives must realize that it is likely their messages to employees will likely leak out into external venues. This doesn’t have to be a negative thing, as long as the message is crafted with that in mind. This can actually work in the organization’s favor. Employees will be sharing info regarding the crisis with those around them and likely the world via social media outlets. When an organization communicates effectively with its employees, it has more control over that information being shared.
Identify a Crisis Communication Team and Train Key Communicators. The spokespersons of an organization reflect its values and standards. The people who will communicate with media, stockholders and customers must fully understand their colossal task and its implications. Wisdom and poise is required to carefully steer the organization through the public communication process. This may mean multiple communicators for different platforms. Some individuals may be skilled in TV interviews while others excel in the social media arena. It’s key to have the right people in the right places at the right time.
Develop Generic Statements. Within every crisis plan, an organization should have a few generic holding statements stockpiled. These can be specific or vague depending on the nature of the organization and the predicted potential crisis. Generic statements would just inform the public that the organization is aware of the situation, activating its crisis plan and doing everything in its power to bring the incident to a resolution. These statements are canned and must be adjusted based on the events of the actual crisis at hand. For example, if the crisis involved injuries or death, the organization must immediately sympathize with individuals and/or family affected. These statements are released as soon as the crisis arises and will buy some time for the organization to gather important details to work toward bringing the crisis to an end and deciding the best way to communicate with stakeholders.
Many of these steps not only prepare organizations to manage crisis situations but also benefit in daily communication functions. One of the seven guiding principles of Arthur W. Page’s philosophy is for public relations professionals to “realize a company’s true character is expressed by its people” (Young & Flowers, 2012). An organization’s success could not be possible without dedicated, hardworking employees. A crisis is a time to show value in people and include them in the life of the organization.