How NRG Energy adapted its crisis response amid COVID-19 uncertainty

Takeaways from its own successes: Be ready and willing to change tactics, and let employee feedback fuel your comeback.

Inside NRG's crisis comms

To paraphrase boxing icon Mike Tyson: Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face.

Of course, not even the powerful punches of prime Tyson could match the fury and flurry of blows that communicators worldwide have absorbed over the last month. The combination of hits has left us reeling and rendered many crisis plans obsolete.

Gin Kinney, NRG Energy’s VP of marketing and communications, spoke about updating crisis plans in light of COVID-19 at Ragan’s virtual Best Practices in Internal Communications and Culture Conference. Kinney shared firsthand guidance from her team’s response to the unfolding pandemic. It was no easy task, communicating with the energy company’s nearly 6,000 employees amid such a fluid situation.

“Details were changing daily—even hourly—so communicating messages across a broad, diverse employee base with a unified voice was difficult. We had to rewrite crisis communication tactics on the fly,” Kinney said.

NRG had robust crisis plans in place for hurricanes and other disasters, but nothing could have prepared them for such a disruptive global event. Typically, Kinney said, the most important immediate elements of crisis plans are to contain the situation and minimize negative attention. COVID-19 rendered those points moot, but regardless of the crisis, you can focus on clear, consistent messaging. “You must align messages into a single, unified voice,” Kinney said.

Don’t allow rogue internal elements to derail or confuse your messaging, and don’t assume that one message or touchpoint is enough. Kinney reminded communicators of George Bernard Shaw’s wisdom: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Be prepared to pivot

Kinney says to be mindful of metrics whenever crisis hits. Determine whether your messaging is resonating and is meaningful to stakeholders. If it’s not, be humble enough to change tactics.

To find the right messaging cadence and channels for specific content, you must solicit feedback from employees. What’s working for them? What would they like to see more of? As the COVID-19 crisis started spreading, NRG sent out pulse surveys to see how employees were coping and how they preferred to be communicated with.

Speaking of coping, Kinney stressed the importance of consistently hearing from leaders during difficult times. Employees need to hear reassuring messages from top brass—even if the news isn’t great or exciting. Reading about a global pandemic 24/7 can wear anyone down, so try to “add some positive, uplifting news into your messaging mix,” Kinney says. She says to fight “message fatigue” by varying your content offerings.

If your leaders are less than inspiring or simply not natural communicators, have the courage to coach them. Provide clear messaging, give them bullet points, and encourage them to communicate via channels that play to their strengths. Depending on your CEO’s personality, that might be a video, a live town hall or one-on-one meetings.

Communicators must be willing to say “no,” Kinney says. Not everyone can or should be a spokesperson.

What’s next?

We might still be firmly in the grip of COVID-19 restrictions, but it’s crucial to envision your post-COVID workplace. Not many have begun this process, though Kinney says now’s the time to “start planning for the new ‘normal.’” Make contingency plans for future potential crises, and create holding statements you can use on the fly.

Above all: Remain in close contact with employees. Keep asking how they’re doing, and make a genuine effort to show you’re acting on employee feedback. After all, it takes employee buy-in and belief for your organization to weather a crisis such as this, and it is employees who will power your comeback when we get back to business as usual.

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