Put yourself in this scenario:
One of your top clients, with your advice, seems to have avoided a potentially negative media response to a workplace injury. The non-fatal accident at a large manufacturing plant is getting more attention than expected, but you were prepared and had thought of presumably everything.
You briefed a company spokeswoman and armed her with strong talking points. Reporters were responded to swiftly and honestly. Initial online reports were fair and balanced.
Yet the moment you felt you were in the clear, the crisis began.
One of the factory’s workers tweeted a photo of the worksite along with a sentence complaining about management’s uncompassionate response (the factory reopened in an hour) and mentioned another recent accident (which never occurred). A few reporters saw the tweet and started reaching out to more employees. One reporter, after verifying that the employee worked there, but without talking to him, quoted the tweet on his 6 p.m. broadcast. A single tweet from someone on your own team changed the narrative.
We too often exclusively focus on the external audience: reporters, customers and other stakeholders. Now, more than ever, we must remember and appreciate our internal audiences. Historically, companies could more easily control a single message. The biggest concern was an ambitious reporter chasing down individual employees who may provide a perspective different than the company line. Reporters now, from the comfort of their own desks, seemingly have access to an entire workforce.
Social media has armed employees with the ability to spread messages to the masses. In the midst of a crisis, it’s impossible to silence or control all messages, but communicators have ways to positively influence them.
Here are three reasons why you must implement an internal response to your crisis plan:
It’s about morale. Your brand is strengthened or diminished by everyone who interacts with it, especially employees. Morale will decline if employees learn important information about their own company via the media. This is true for 50-person companies and massive, publicly traded multinational organizations. This is especially true during crises. People want to be in the know and surely will feel devalued if they are not.
If you don’t tell them something, expect most people to make it up. Sure, it’s dishonest, but step into their shoes. Something bad has happened at your company. Immediately, your family, friends and other contacts reach out to you for info. People don’t like to admit their ignorance regarding their own place of employment. Most will grab on to whatever they’ve learned, usually via a dangerous and horribly inaccurate rumor mill. Mix this with low morale, and you’re on a precipice of disaster.
Opportunity missed. Every employee is disseminating opinions—good and bad—about their workplace. We know that employees contribute to outsiders’ perceptions of their organizations. However, employees now have more potential than ever to share those views with the world. Would you rather employees start with messages that you crafted, or what they heard in the lunchroom? Sure they will create and possibly spread their own interpretations, but keeping employees in the loop can only help shape their initial perceptions. A single, consistent spokesperson throughout a crisis is a best practice and important, but it is decreasingly the reality. Ignoring that fact could be detrimental.
How much do we tell an internal audience and when? Share internally at least what you’re planning to release externally. If you decide to share more information internally than externally, treat the more detailed message as if it will be public. Also ensure the internal and external messages are consistent in tone. This will provide the best chance for similar communication to occur across all channels and in infinite circles.
Make sure to tell your employees before—but not too long before—you make a public statement. We typically recommend including a “we wanted to share with you first …” mention in your internal message. Keeping the release of the two announcements close in time provides less of a chance it will be leaked externally from an internal source. We also know that, during crises, you will likely update media on an ongoing basis. It’s important to repeat this every time you’re releasing new info.
Does the internal side of crisis communications add difficult – and, for some, a new – layer to crafting your action plan? Of course. But it’s something that is increasingly important and should not be forgotten.
Rob Phillips leads the strategic communications team at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP, a 375-attorney law firm with seven offices across the country. Phillips, a non-attorney, focuses a portion of his practice on helping firm clients navigate a variety of communications and public relations challenges. He has supported clients in a variety of industries, including financial services, health care, higher education, energy, pharmaceutical and not-for-profits. Learn more at vorys.com/strategiccommunications.