A couple weeks back, I published an article that discussed best practices for communicating with your key stakeholders in a crisis. But while external communications are typically top of mind in a crisis (at least for the organizations with a mindset on communication), there is an equally important stakeholder group that is often overlooked when it comes to crisis management: the internal stakeholders.
Depending on your organization, your internal stakeholders can be anyone from your employees, to your volunteers, candidates, and so on. This stakeholder group is made up of the people who help make your organization run on a day-to-day basis. And yet, as important as your internal stakeholders are, internal crisis communications can be one of the easiest things to overlook in the hustle and bustle of real-time crisis management.
In fact, it’s one of the most frequent mistakes that I see made, in my work as a crisis management consultant. It’s also one of the top concerns that I hear over and over again when I sit down with a new client and interview their heads of departments. During these initial interviews I always receive a variation of the same feedback from HR (as well as some other communication-savvy department heads): “management tends to forget to communicate with employees when something happens”.
It’s one of the most common concerns and mistakes made, and yet internal crisis communications is also one of the most important communications for successful crisis management. But while it’s often the most overlooked, it doesn’t have to be. There are some simple steps you can take now, to ensure effective communications with your internal stakeholders in a crisis. Let’s take a look.
The importance of internal crisis communications
There are several reasons why ensuring effective communicate with your employees in a crisis is so critical for your crisis management success. And while I won’t get into all of the reasons in this article, the two biggest reasons are worth noting:
- To ensure consistent communication with external stakeholders, and
- For employee morale.
If you don’t keep your employees informed in a crisis, how will you ensure their ability to answer inquiries from stakeholders they deal with normally? One of the biggest goals when it comes to crisis communications is to ensure that your message is consistent across the board. You can’t do this without providing your employees with the necessary details or key message points.
Additionally, you want your employees to feel valued. As though they’re an important part of the team, and not forgotten. Providing them with information regarding the crisis, and the steps the organization is taking to manage the crisis, is an easy way to accomplish this. Let them know they’re valued and provide them with guidance as to what their role within the management of the crisis is – even if that role is simply to carry on with their daily tasks as usual. Fail to do this and you may find yourself faced with an internal crisis within the crisis.
Planning to ensure effective internal crisis communications
Like anything, successful internal crisis communications takes thought and preparation. Following are three steps you can take now, to ensure effective internal communications in all stages of crisis management:
Step 1: Make sure HR has a seat at the crisis management table
The very first step is to ensure that HR has a seat at the crisis management table. This is critical. When you’re developing your governance structure for crisis management, the goal is to make sure that you have each stakeholder group represented, so as to ensure that no one is overlooked. This means that if you want to ensure that your internal stakeholders are never overlooked, you need to have a dedicated crisis management team member whose role is to focus on employees, volunteers and candidates throughout each stage of crisis management. Their focus is both to ensure timely and effective cascading of information, just as it is to evaluate the potential impact the crisis will have on this particular stakeholder group.
Acquiring this coveted seat
For the HR professionals that do not currently have a seat at the crisis management table, acquiring this seat is an important first task to undertake. In my experience, the organizations that have not yet welcomed HR with a seat at the table, is simply due to a lack of understanding of the importance – and value – of internal crisis communications. Calling a meeting with management and making this case is usually all it takes (unless of course there’s another reason as to why you don’t already have that seat). My advice to you is to identify the reason behind your current lack of inclusion and then call a meeting to remedy the situation.
Step 2: Determine your means of communication with internal stakeholders in a crisis
As you do with your external stakeholders, you’ll want to determine your means of communication with your employees and other internal stakeholders in a crisis. For example, will you communicate with them via email? Do you have an intranet that can be leveraged? Will you hold a town hall or a conference call? What is the most effective way to communicate with your team members in a crisis – and at what stage of the crisis should you be doing so?
When I develop crisis communication strategies for clients, I usually advise the following to ensure well-rounded, emotionally intelligent and continual crisis communications with employees. Feel free to use this as a baseline and adapt it to your own crisis communications plan:
- Live communication by heads of departments: One of the first crisis management tasks for each head of department is to quickly brief their team on the incident and the organization’s crisis management next steps. This should happen before any external communications takes place. During this quick 10 minute live briefing, employees are informed that they will receive a more in-depth email with guidance from management in the coming minutes.
- Informative written communication to all employees: This should be sent out by management and can be in the form of an email or a written notification via the organization’s intranet, whichever makes the most sense for your organization. The goal of this communication is to reach all relevant team members and to provide them with guidance and reassurance.
- Live update by management: At some point within the first day, management should also hold an all-staff conference call, a town hall or a webcast, depending on the culture of the organization and its preferred means of face-to-face communication with employees. This all-staff meeting is meant to provide employees with an update on the management of the crisis, as well as to show them care and concern. Just as you’ll want to reach out to your key external stakeholders to provide them with live communications in a crisis, the same goes for your internal communications. The goal here is to continue to strengthen the relationship between management and employees, to make employees feel as though they’re an important part of the team, and to assure them that management has the crisis under control.
Step 3: Draft and have your internal crisis communications pre-approved
As with your external crisis communications, your internal crisis communications can be drafted and pre-approved in advance. Doing this will help you meet your timely communications goals and will allow you to get buy-in and approval from all members of management ahead of a crisis – which goes a long way in helping you successfully manage crises in the heat of the moment.
This written communication should include the following:
- A high-level overview of the incident
- A statement of reassurance
- Your employees’ crisis management responsibilities (i.e.: actions you want them to take, even if it’s simply to continue to conduct business as usual)
- Where to send incoming inquiries
- Where to go for answers to remaining questions and concerns
- Details regarding the next communication by management (i.e.: what time the town hall will take place, conference call dial-in instructions, etc.)
- Approved talking points for responding to inquiries that they’re responsible for responding to
How deep should your internal crisis communications be?
I often come across the misconception that employees need to be provided with the most detail regarding a crisis. In other words, that you should share more crisis details with your employees than any other stakeholder group. And while this misconception stems from a good place, it is still a misconception.
Why? Because in order to control and ensure continuity of message across all stakeholder groups, you need to provide the same information to all stakeholder groups, including employees. No more, no less.
A good rule of thumb for all stakeholder crisis communications is to ask yourself the following question: would we want this piece of information to be made public or be published by the media? If the answer is “no”, then only a select group of team members (a.k.a. your crisis management team) should be privy to this information.
But, as I mentioned, this misconception stems from a good place, a place of wanting to be forthright and inclusive with your employees. You can still do this, without being overly indulgent regarding the details of the crisis. You do this by making sure your employees are the first to receive the information, as well as by scheduling time to provide them with a live update (along with continual updates) from management, as I specified above.
Your next steps are as easy as 1, 2, 3
If you put the work in prior to experiencing a crisis, you can rest assured that employees won’t be overlooked or forgotten in the heat of the moment. And putting the work in now is as simple as taking the above three steps. Good luck!
Author of Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World, Melissa Agnes is a leading authority on crisis preparedness, reputation management, and brand protection. Agnes is a coveted keynote speaker, commentator, and advisor to some of today’s leading organizations faced with the greatest risks. Learn more about Melissa and her work here.