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22 April 2020

Why internal communications are key during a crisis

Bethaney Durkin |
Byfield Consultancy

When a crisis hits and you need to respond, it’s all too easy to focus on external stakeholders – what will the media report? What will our clients think? What do we need to announce or explain? However, while this is a natural response, and external communications are an essential part of any crisis response plan, it’s vital not to overlook internal communications in your planning. Company employees are some of the most crucial stakeholders in any crisis event.

Not only are employees themselves stakeholders in the company, who need and deserve clear and prompt communication from their employer, they are uniquely positioned in the crisis matrix. An unprepared employee may unwittingly go off-script or speak to the media and undermine the company’s approach to the crisis. Equally however, there are hazards in how you communicate to employees and members of the firm, especially where a crisis is evolving and the picture is changing quickly. How you communicate with your team is also a crucial metric in planning a crisis response. While it is important that team-members be kept updated so they can be on-message, firing lots of messages at them, or relying on one-dimensional approaches like group-emails, while efficient, may not achieve the goal. The reader may get lost in the detail, or may miss key updates in their inbox. Face to face briefings, team meetings or having a dedicated space on a company intranet may achieve more, and a combination of approaches may be best.

Remember that the crisis the company is facing may also affect team members personally. The human touch in how you communicate with this audience is important. A complicated, or rapidly changing message from the company is confusing, and will not prepare your team to handle the crisis well. In most companies the front line of crisis response is their client-facing staff, and for many observers their performance will be the measure used for how well the company performed in the crisis, with potentially lasting impressions created. An important goal of internal communications in a crisis is to help team members feel confident and secure in what they should be doing and or saying in response.

Some tips for approaching internal communications in a crisis:

- Practise your response. Make sure you have a crisis playbook prepared, with key information, protocols and contact information. The time to develop your crisis communications strategy is not in the midst of a crisis. Anticipate the likely crises that might affect the business and rehearse responding to them to make sure everyone will be match-fit if a real crisis hits.

- Communicate early. Make sure your people do not first learn of the crisis the company is facing through the media or social media. Let them know what is going on, any immediate actions they need to take, and the protocol to follow if they are asked about it.

- Prepare your lines of communication – in both directions. Make sure employees know who they can ask questions of, whether it’s their line manager or a designated contact in the crisis response team, and be available to answer them. Equally, you need to be able to reach your people when you need to – whether by email, phone, text or through an app. For example, in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster, you will need to be able to able to contact everyone to make sure they are safe and accounted for.

- Keep employees updated. A lack of information in a crisis can be unnerving, particularly if rumours are circulating. While it is important to ensure accuracy above all else, letting employees know what action is being taken, and repeating this message even when there is no new information to share, will help reassure teams, keep everyone focused on what needs to be done and ensure you can concentrate on resolving the crisis.

Remember, your employees are key stakeholders and should be treated as such.