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Internal Crisis Communication

Published on April 29, 2020, at 5:46 p.m.
by Olivia Carroll.

In a time of crisis, many companies immediately think of how to reassure their stockholders, clients and industry partners. However, it is just as important, if not more important, to first think of the internal public when a crisis occurs. Not only are these people employees, but they are more than likely consumers of their company as well.

Have a relationship with your people before things go wrong

Carrie Altieri, vice president of communications for people and culture at IBM, said, “You have to have established, good working relationships with all of the different parts of an organization before you are in the middle of a crisis.” Altieri noted that employees are potential ambassadors for the organization. If you wait until a crisis to cultivate a positive employee culture, you have likely already lost the trust of your internal public.

Courtesy of Windows on Unsplash

As Heidi Green in a Forbes article noted, “It’s not a matter of if your information will be shared externally; it’s a matter of when.” Reaching out to the internal public first ensures that the entire company is speaking as one unit and on-message. Dr. Laura Lemon, assistant professor in the College of Communication and Information Sciences at The University of Alabama, referred to this inevitable sharing of internal information as the “backyard barbeque test.” When people ask employees what their company is doing in the face of a crisis, they should be able to answer clearly and on-message.

“Employees are at the heart of the organization and should be your priority. A pandemic should not be the reason to start going to your employees first,” said Dr. Lemon. A company can talk to its consumers all day, but if there are no employees to run the company, then the consumer audience does not matter.

Understand the ripple effect of leadership

Georgia Wright, global head of internal communications at Xero, said, “If you don’t look after your people, they won’t look after your customers. It has this ripple effect.” Making sure your leadership is well informed has the same effect. Employees tend to look up the chain of command for direction and, as Altieri noted, a crisis is an opportunity for leaders to emerge. It is important for leadership to know all of the information necessary so that they can help their teams in whatever way they might need. Wright said that Xero is currently focused on up-skilling its leadership teams to respond to their team’s concerns on COVID-19 related issues.

“Our CEO is catching up with our senior leadership team more often to coach them and give them the tools and capabilities to be able to cope with a tough landscape and help their teams through it,” said Wright. Altieri noted that IBM has convened its leaders in “Ask Me Anything” Slack channels based on topics such as helping their teams be resilient, how to help empower their teams and how to check on the mental well-being of their team members.

Courtesy of Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

In a crisis, leaders need to be authentic, honest and human. For Xero, this means increasing global all-hands video meetings from a month-to-month occurrence to weekly meetings. Wright said that their CEO personally leads these meetings, giving people “the good, the bad and the ugly” and then “he gives them enormous hope” for how the company is moving forward during this time. It is important to engage with all levels of employees in a company, but taking time to focus on giving leadership the tools and messaging to pass down to their teams has a ripple effect that will spread throughout the company.

Distribute more than necessary information
It is necessary for companies to distribute educational information about the situation at hand, but leaders must remember that their employees are human just like them. Wright said that companies must acknowledge the situation is tough and communicate honestly as they work together with the employees.

Internal communicators must find a balance between the types of content the employees want and the type of content that needs to be published. Some suggestions include distributing check-in surveys, calling to chat with team members, or even scheduling video calls to talk about non-work-related things or to host a happy hour.

When the concern on COVID-19 began to become more apparent, Altieri and IBM immediately began distributing information on “Tips for IBMers,” a page located on the company’s internal platform. This page holds practical information on travel and general restrictions, FAQs and more. IBM also distributed a message to IBMers from Lady Gaga, who recorded a message for them in response to a donation that IBM made to the World Health Organization.

Wright said the team at Xero has made use of fun platforms, such as TikTok, to distribute positive, engaging materials such as leadership showing what their home workspace looks like. In the middle of the stress and uncertainty, it is important to give employees some positive materials to keep their spirits high and help them to look forward.

Make the communication “beautiful and human”
Wright noted that Xero values being “beautiful and human.” She described beautiful communication as being clear and succinct with a beautiful look and feel. The best way to do this: human-to-human dialogue. Video messaging, like IBM News and Xero’s global all-hands meetings, is a form of communication that employees can connect with.

Courtesy of visuals on Unsplash

Wright said that human communication is down to earth, caring and ensures employees that they have a sense of belonging. In a crisis, internal communication must focus on caring for the employees in whatever way best fits the company and the culture.

Forbes contributor Sean Nolan advised, “People value certainty in times of disruption, so make sure your teams know they can rely on you to be there, both when and where they expect.”

Wright advocated for what she called “bite-size” information. She noted that companies should consider providing more communication with small bits of information instead of one large lump sum of information that weighs down on employees. Another method Wright is implementing is daily, if not every-other-day, message updates on an internal communications platform such as Slack. Small amounts of information distributed consistently show that the internal communication team is actively working to find answers, provide clarity and keep employees up to date with information.

Altieri said that in the middle of this crisis, there is an opportunity to provide clarity and help people understand that the company is committed to their well-being. She said, “There is a lot of confusion out there, and people don’t know where to turn for information. We can help provide a sense of clarity to them so that they say, ‘OK, I got it. I know what I need to do.’”

When a crisis occurs, a company’s internal public is the first public that the communications team should engage. For companies that did not have internal crisis communication ready, now is the time to prepare for when the next crisis occurs, as it undoubtedly will. Dr. Lemon noted, “This experience should ignite and encourage (companies) to have the processes and employee culture in place before something like this happens again.”

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