How to manage employee communications during a corporate crisis


 — September 17th, 2019

How to manage employee communications during a corporate crisis

Corporate crises happen, and unfortunately they’re on the rise. For enterprise companies, good intentions aren’t always enough to keep your company out of the headlines for products or incidents gone wrong. And when a crisis hits, the company has to react.

Usually, a company’s crisis response often centers on the press and consumer base. While managing your reputation for audiences outside of the company matters, you also have another important audience to think about: your employees.

For the internal communications team, making sure you address the concerns of your employees during a crisis is paramount. Your workforce may share the same anger or concern that the larger public does, but mixed in with worries about job security and what the crisis will mean for them.

The employee communications team must shoulder the role of making sure your beleaguered executives don’t forget to include employees in the crisis management plan and helping them navigate their staff communications effectively.

Rob Shimmin of Shimmin Communications has huge experience doing crisis work for big companies. In a Poppulo webinar on how to be a better communications coach to your leadership team, he addresses some of the best steps internal communications can take to be prepared for a crisis, and how to manage it when it happens.

1. Coach your executives in advance

People always say hindsight is 20/20, but if you’re reading this before a crisis happens, you have the chance to take actions now that will make your life easier if the worst occurs. One of the most important things you can do to prepare is spending time coaching your leadership team now.

The internal communications team can take on some aspects of handling explanations during a crisis, but your executives have an undeniable role to play. While Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer found that 44% of the general population trusts CEOs, 72% of employees do.

That relationship between the CEO and employees is important. You want to give your executives the skills to use that trust to increase employee confidence, rather than losing it by doing the wrong thing when it matters most.

Shimmin shared a number of specific tips for coaching your executives on the webinar (you can watch the full thing for all the useful details), such as teaching them to use stories and to get comfortable pausing when they talk. All of this is important to do before a crisis, because it ensures they know how to communicate naturally and authentically by the time a crisis hits.

65% of people said they trust a spontaneous speaker more than a rehearsed one. A CEO you’ve coached to be a natural speaker won’t deliver memorized talking points in a stilted way, they’ll know how to communicate the messages you want to get across in a way your employees can relate to.

2. Know how to protect them

Taking the time to work with your leadership team in advance also has the added benefit of giving you the chance to get to know them. You can learn their strengths and weaknesses, which puts you in a better position to plan out a successful internal crisis response.

“Most of the leaders that you think about in your leadership team will have really strong aspects to their personality, and some things which need managing,” explains Shimmin. “If you put those people into a crisis situation, or under an element of pressure, the likelihood is that the unhelpful trait is going to surface.”

Everybody handles stress differently, but the key is figuring out how to keep the stress from affecting their ability to communicate effectively with employees. And you’re in a better position to spot and plan around their strengths and weaknesses than they are—we inevitably have a harder time seeing ourselves as clearly as others do.

When you know your executives well, you can craft your IC crisis strategy to avoid vulnerabilities that may come out under pressure, and instead, play up their strengths.

3. Keep roles separate

You need someone on the leadership team willing to address your employees during the crisis, but it doesn’t have to be the same person that’s tirelessly working to fix the crisis behind the scenes. 

“It’s just not tenable to have the most senior guy running the crisis and at the same time being wheeled out as the main number-one communicator,” says Shimmin. “There aren’t enough hours in the day.”

“I would look really closely at who is the best person to run the crisis and who is the best person to communicate it and keep the two roles separate,” he adds.

Use what you’ve learned about your executives to determine whose skills are the best fit for managing internal communications—it may be the same person who’s best for external communications, or it may not. Make sure your strategy doesn’t put too much on the shoulders of one person. Executives are only human, and when people are overwhelmed, we make mistakes.

4. Bring in subject experts

Your executives probably aren’t the ones who are most knowledgeable about the details of the crisis and how best to fix it. While their leadership role requires they do some of the work of managing the crisis and communicating about it, they shouldn’t have to do it alone.

“If you have a real subject expert who can sit alongside them, you get an enormous amount of credibility,” recommends Shimmin. “You get better quality knowledge around the issue, but also the endorsement of the senior person sitting next to them.”

Figure out who in the company has the knowledge to talk in detail about what’s going on. Since it likely won’t be someone you’ve spent time coaching, talk them through some of your best tips for effective communication. Then let them work alongside someone on the leadership team to get the message out to your employees. It will lend your communication with employees that much more authority, and take a little of the work off the shoulders of your overwhelmed executive.

Good Communication Can Keep a Crisis Manageable

No company wants to find themselves facing a crisis, which makes it easy to avoid thinking about it before it happens. But by doing adequate preparation and creating a solid IC plan to help your executives address the crisis with your employees, you can keep the situation from getting worse and appease the concerns of your workforce.

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