5 ways to communicate with employees during a crisis

When a crisis hits, organizations tend to forget about their employees. Yet employees could be your most helpful allies when disaster strikes.

“Let’s hold a press conference.” “Let’s call in the board.” “Did anyone tell the suppliers?”

Those are the phrases from an all-hands-on-deck response to a crisis. What’s often missing is, “How do we tell the employees?”

Forgetting about employees is the dumbest thing you can do in a crisis.

Your employees are your best community ambassadors. They are the stakeholders with the biggest stake in your company. Who better to carry the message about the good your organization provides every day? Who better to remind the world why a crisis won’t derail your mission? And most of all, who will personally grieve over the impact on your organization’s reputation when a crisis hits?

This employee grieving process hit me hard during the latest crisis I handled. As the press camped outside my client’s office window, unfurling live satellite dishes like ominous balloons, we literally hunkered down behind the blinds. Phones rang at the front desk as employees did their best to soothe panicked customers. In the halls, those same employees struggled to deal with nervous customers who were troubled by the revelations on the morning newscasts.

The only port in that storm was our “war room” where we set up laptops, cell phones and TVs. That’s where the employees took refuge. They were shocked by the apparent misdeeds of an employee they knew and respected. They were exhausted from dealing with worried customers, and embarrassed to be associated with their employer. They were so ashamed they removed their ID badges when they went out to lunch, lest anyone know where they worked.

While this is an extreme example, it tells us that employees must be informed, supported and nurtured when a company is under assault. And you must to do this before, during and after a crisis. Here are a few strategies:

1. Treat employees as your most important stakeholders when you plan for a crisis and during the crisis.

2. Distribute a media and social media procedure memo as your first step in any crisis. This memo clarifies how you want employees to handle reporters or bloggers. It directs them to send all media calls to one person, and cautions them not to speak to any member of the media, even if they know the reporter personally.

The memo also includes a phrase employees can use when dealing with media requests. It provides an alternative to the ever-damaging “They told me not to talk to you” comment. That comment does nothing for your on-going relationship with the media. Instead, try this: “We have someone who is handling these calls. Here is her contact information. Give me your information, too, and I’ll send it along to her.”

This memo also tells employees how you would like them to deal with crises via social media. In most cases, employees should refrain from talking about the crisis on social media. Note that you can’t legally bar them from doing this, but you can explain why it’s best for the company.

3. Post all materials you send to stakeholders in a central location employees can access (i.e. your intranet). These materials could include press releases, fact sheets or letters to customers and those affected by the crisis. Let employees know when you’ve updated these materials.

4. Allow your employees to vent. Any employee who cares about where he works will feel personally assaulted by a crisis. Managers must allow employees to vent those feelings.

I certainly saw this in the crisis I mentioned above. Our war room was a safe place where employees could talk freely about the pressures they felt. It gave them some comfort. You need this during and after a crisis for the good of the employees and the company.

I often suggest managers conduct both formal and informal sessions with employees during and after a crisis. These sessions should be both informative (what happened, what we did, what we’ll do and what it means to you) as well as conversational. There has to be room for two-way communication, not just “words from the top.” You may also need to call in professional counselors for employees who need help with grief, betrayal or anger.

My team and I handled one crisis that had employees crying in the halls because of the way a newspaper portrayed their nonprofit organization. Their managers responded with compassion, acknowledging how hurtful the article was. It allowed employees to recognize the pain and move on.

5. Give employees a role in recovery. When crises hit, you’re the firefighter. Resist the temptation to think you’re done once the fire’s out. Your post-crisis actions will be critical to recovery. That’s when it’s time to take back your reputation with the support and help of your employees. Establish and articulate an aggressive effort to recapture your reputation, and give your employees a role. It will empower them to take back what the company lost and be proud of their workplace again.

The great ad man, David Ogilvy, once said, “Our company’s greatest asset goes down the elevator every night.” Make sure you include those assets in dealing with and recovering from a crisis.

Andrea Obston is the president of Andrea Obston Marketing Communications, LLC., where a version of this article originally appeared. Obston is also an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University.

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