Keep employees on board throughout a crisis to keep your reputation buoyant

Communicating with staff is essential to weather the storm
By Leslie Hetherington
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/25/2005

Traditionally, many PR practitioners and communicators advised clients to manage the range and scope of communications in a crisis, as much as possible.

“However, in the 24/7 borderless world of the Internet, wireless communications and now photo phones, containment is not only impossible but also dangerous,” says Bart Mindszenthy, partner with Mindszenthy & Roberts, a Toronto-based consultancy founded on crisis and issues management. “The challenge is to rapidly develop and relay responsible messaging to all key stakeholders, especially employees.”

Regina-based Warren Bickford, chair of the International Association of Business Communicators, concurs. “During a crisis, when public inquiry intensifies and is magnified by the web, you need to keep employees informed to minimize panic, distrust and rumors,” says Bickford. “It’s also imperative that an organization use its employees as ambassadors and leverage their expertise to sustain its reputation.”

The most effective way to manage a crisis is to prepare for it. When a crisis occurs, two types of plans must be implemented concurrently: an operational plan to assess and execute response procedures, such as stopping a hazardous gas leak or managing extensive litigation; and a crisis communications plan in which all internal stakeholders are clear on their roles.

Typically, a crisis communications plan includes:

•current co-ordinates for an identified spokesperson or spokespeople and a core crisis response team, as well as emergency services, media and other external groups;

•logistical checklists for pertinent supplies and documents, such as templates for phone logs and media backgrounders and fact sheets that outline proactive measures taken to prevent or mitigate the specific type of crisis;

•disclosure policies and protocols for centralizing and responding to any media inquiries; and

•pre-defined key messages and timetabled procedures for likely scenarios.

Sometimes it’s sudden, often it’s been smoldering

The Institute for Crisis Management (ICM) defines a crisis as “a significant business disruption, which results in extensive news media coverage and public scrutiny.” How quickly disruptions become a crisis will vary according to the organization, its brand, environment, stakeholders and reputation.

Crises can be defined as “sudden” or “smoldering.” A sudden crisis, such as a hazardous chemical spill or violent incident, occurs without warning and may have an adverse impact on the organization, its employees, customers and other stakeholders.

Conversely, a smoldering crisis is a serious business problem, not generally known within the organization, which may generate negative news coverage, if or when it goes public, and could lead to fines, legal damages and other costs.

RBC Financial Group’s 2004 processing disruption was a classic smoldering crisis in which its IT department and others did not realize the magnitude or complexity of the problem until backlogged transactions compounded and delayed updates to clients’ accounts.

According to the ICM, smoldering crises occurred almost three times as often as sudden crises in 2004. They’re on the rise, says the ICM, noting that most sudden crises generate “aftershocks” in the form of smoldering crises, as government, media and internal investigations delve into the cause of the initial crisis and uncover previously hidden issues.

Partnering with communications

During a crisis, senior management, including HR, plays an integral role between operations and corporate communications, as it must allocate resources for crisis teams, swiftly make critical decisions and communicate as directed. When employees’ health or pay is at risk or personnel issues are integral to the crisis, HR is particularly active and may engage external experts, such as medical personnel, grief counsellors or legal counsel.

In all cases, it’s crucial that HR work in tandem with corporate communications to develop, streamline and deliver consistent messages across the organization.

“In crises specific to health-care or pharmaceutical firms, such as an adverse event, product recall or withdrawal, the stakes are much higher, as they can impact a person’s health or life,” explains Felicia Shiu, vice-president, health care, at Toronto-based Maverick Public Relations Inc.

“It is critical that these employees quickly receive and understand the key messages they must communicate in a timely manner to their multiple touch points, including patients, pharmacists, physicians and regulators, among others,” she says. “And HR plays a vital role in identifying the relevant employees and the right medium to reach them, in each scenario, such as e-mail for the medical affairs department and face-to-face explanations for distribution staff.”

A key advantage in minimizing fallout is to foster positive relationships with media and other external stakeholders prior to a crisis. The same holds true for internal stakeholders. “Investing in initiatives to equip all employees with top-line awareness of your product or service reduces the learning curve when things go amiss and you need them to explain what happened and to advocate for the brand under tense circumstances,” explains Shiu.

Many companies also hold simulations, including mock media interviews, to test these plans. That said, not every crisis can be anticipated and none has a “cookie-cutter” solution. Each requires a tailored resolution that may change by the hour, as threats emerge or new information is revealed.

Reach staff before the media does

Since initial news or identification of a crisis can occur within any level or department, you need to have a chain of command and protocols in place for identifying who needs to be reached, by what method and in what sequence. E-mails, instant messaging and intranets often suffice, but low-tech solutions, such as emergency phone trees, toll-free crisis lines or face-to-face announcements, are needed in case power is down, it’s outside of business hours or pertinent employees have minimal access to computers.

At the outset, it’s critical to make a concerted effort to inform employees directly before they learn of a crisis and its impact on their organization through newscasts or customers. Andrew Coxhead, senior public affairs officer at 1 Canada Air Division Operations and Canadian NORAD Region Headquarters in Winnipeg, says when he issues an incident advisory to media, he often simultaneously sends it to employees, even if it’s outside business hours.

“This instills a sense of trust within the force, as it tells each employee they are valued and that an effort was made to reach them,” says Coxhead.

“Where possible though, we advocate face-to-face contact,” he states. “When cracks were detected in a component within the wings of one of our aircraft, we mobilized engineers to visit each affected base and verify the craft was safe to fly. They were monitoring and would replace the components through periodic maintenance. When this happened, you could see the mood shift from uncertainty to relief.”

Give employees adequate information

A crisis is not the time to launch an intranet or new communications tool, but it is often prudent to use several proven tactics to ensure the message gets through and updates are provided, as much as necessary.

“You need to tell the truth and manage employees’ fears with facts, but also to decide what and when to communicate,” cautions Karen Schwartz, director of corporate employee communications at RBC Financial Group. “This means not relaying everything and recognizing that employee groups require varying levels of detail.”

For RBC’s processing disruption, sales support provided staff in client-facing roles with frequent detailed updates on how the issue was being handled, what clients should do and how to respond to their inquiries. The corporate communications department gave the rest of the organization, as well as media and external audiences, big picture briefs on the organization’s progress toward resolving the issue.

Employees must also be considered in the rebuilding process following a crisis and HR may need to follow up when extensive overtime has been incurred, among other things. “If there has been drama on your base, it had better be covered in the next employee newspaper or you lose credibility,” says Coxhead of NORAD.

Likewise, RBC devoted its quarterly president’s conference call following the processing disruption to encouraging employees to share their experiences, says Schwartz. “They spoke of it being a difficult time, but one where they had come through for their clients and each other.” In the aftermath, RBC lost some clients but gained others and retained its reputation, likely due in some degree to effective use of its internal resources.

Leslie Hetherington is an accredited PR practitioner, freelance writer and managing director of the LASH Communications Group. She also teaches internal communications at Seneca College in Toronto. She can be reached at leslie.hetherington@rogers.com.

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