Internal Communications in Times of Crisis
Internal communications are critical in times of crisis, and just as how a company is seen to behave will impact its external reputation, the same must be said for how staff perceive their employer. In fact, your staff can be your biggest advocates to build and protect your reputation, and if your people are not on board with your mission, it has little chance of succeeding.
We often advise clients on their internal communications, and following today’s CIPR webinar on Internal Communications we thought it would be helpful to pass on some of the insights shared this morning.
Crisis comms are not crisis management.
Crisis communications are part of crisis management, which is the process by which an organisation deals with a sudden emergency situation.
Equally, crisis communications are not issue management, which is the process of preventing a problem becoming a crisis.
Role of Internal Communications
How you deal with a crisis will have a significant impact on your reputation and your ability to recover. During a crisis, communication is critical. People need to know:
- What has happened
- Why it happened
- What the organisation is doing to respond
- How they might be affected
- What their role is in overcoming the crisis
Employees are key drivers of your reputation, they are on the ‘front line’. Their actions, what they say and how they behave will have a significant impact on how your stakeholders and customers perceive the business.
Additionally, a business will need their staff fully engaged in their roles and performing to the best of their ability to help the organisation move towards recovery.
Remember to consider how people will feel about the situation, not just what you want them to do.
Strategy and Planning
Remember you may need to pause the campaigns you were running, or adapt them to the current environment. A little bit of normal is good, but don’t misjudge how people are feeling, and if your staff are facing pay cuts or redundancies, the company must sense check its internal marketing spend.
As with any campaign plan, knowledge is king, don’t be afraid to pause and do your research. Audit, research and consider the following questions:
- What’s the problem?
- What’s the impact – short, mid and long-term?
- How have people been affected?
- What’s being done to fix the problem?
- What do you want people to do, and feel?
- Who are the different audiences?
- What channels should you use to reach those audiences?
- What are your messages?
- What’s the timing?
Remember to consider what it feels like for staff on the front line – the perspective of leadership might be very different for those working in different departments.
When you set your internal communications objectives consider these points:
- What do you want people to know, feel and do?
- Ask why? Why does the action required matter from a strategic perspective?
- Link your internal objectives to your external communications objectives and the overall crisis management plan.
Tactics and Implementation Plans
When devising tactics, remember that people need to access information easily. They need the facts, and to develop trust in leadership, communication needs to be clear, honest, accurate and frequently updated. Here are a few ‘must-haves’:
- Always make your communications factual and evidence-based.
- Always focus on the objective – the call to action, but building that out into a creative campaign can help to build a shared purpose, reinforce your corporate values or build an emotional bond.
- Always make sure your communications are two-way – how are you listening?
As the information about the situation increases – keep communicating and build out the activity to include telling stories of how people or teams are overcoming the problem and moving forward.
Your internal comms should evolve as the crisis evolves. Keep listening and invite your staff to engage more in the activity as it develops over time.
Every crisis is different and all businesses are unique, but whatever the situation there are some common themes:
- People want to know what is happening, what it means and what they should be doing.
- Make the ‘do’ message clear; it should come from the top.
- Make sure teams feel valued and understand that their effort is seen and appreciated.
- Think about people’s feelings, both positive and negative, and respond in a human way.
- Consider how staff can share their own ideas.
Channels and Messages
All good communication plans must deliver the right message to the right people, in the right way and at the right time. Targeting specific content to specific audiences means you can also avoid overwhelming people. Be human: ask yourself, who needs to know what first, who is most affected at this time?
Stakeholder and audience mapping is an incredibly useful exercise for any communications plan. Find out more by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your messaging strategy should acknowledge what’s happening and how people feel.
Any communications in a crisis (internal or external) should focus on the staff or customer before the ‘corporation’.
We also recommend that clients use the CARE model for crisis message development, expressing concern, action, reassurance. Find out more.
Review your internal communications channels and ask what Covid-19 has shown us, be prepared to adopt new channels according to the impact of the crisis.
- Use one-way channels to inform, e.g. posting updates on an intranet.
- Use two-way channels to engage, e.g. staff meetings, or a group Zoom session.
- Think about what mass message delivery channels you can use, e.g. text message or team WhatsApp groups.
- Consider the right content mix, e.g. statements, stories, blogs, films, podcasts, graphics, animations, infographics.
- Be ready to change your channel choices in a crisis and adapt those channels at different stages of the crisis.
Leadership and Spokespeople
During a crisis, senior leaders must be visible, they must have authority but also be human. It is a time to live your values, making sure leaders are seen to ‘get it’ from a staff perspective.
Leadership during a crisis is not just about the CEO; remember to use line managers to cascade the information specific to teams, and make sure they are supported to do the communications job properly.
Spokespeople must be available and seen to be listening – think about how staff can contact them directly, in a controllable way. Whether they are speaking to an internal or external audience, your spokesperson must understand the key messages.
Make sure they are ready to take the heat; communicating during a crisis is not a comfortable experience. Be ready to take criticism and respond in a humble and human way.
Measurement – Impact
Finally, as with any campaign, measurement and evaluation will help to improve your systems and show the impact that internal communications have on the business.
- Measure outtakes and outcomes, not just outputs.
- Keep records of activity and responses – a crisis is fast-moving and it can be hard to remember all the details afterwards.
- If you can, build in ‘hot debriefs’ so you can assess and pivot if necessary.
- Remember, communicating in a crisis will be challenging.
- It’s hard to get everything right.
- People will be stressed and that might be directed at the communicators – be ready to take the hit, but look after your own health and wellbeing.
Every organisation needs the full participation and support from its staff to recover. The whole team must understand what’s happening and what they can do to make things better. If you need help to improve your internal communications, please get in touch.