The Communications Clinic
The Communications Clinic
October 6, 2020

It’s been a rough morning for your business. You’ve gotten an email from HR to say that there’s been an incident, Health and Safety are going into overdrive, customers are asking about potential delays to delivering your service or product and on top of that you’ve gotten a media inquiry that would suggest the world knows your problems.

What do you do? Who do you talk to? Who don’t you talk to?

The first thing to remember in a crisis is that poor communication early on can make a bad situation worse. By poor communication we mean prioritising the wrong audience or starting to communicate without knowing all of the facts. Managers need to remember that the first thing that you should do in a crisis is nothing. Stand still. Listen. Gather information before communicating.

Check that you’ve done nothing obviously wrong. Did you follow all reporting regulations? Have the right people been informed in the right way at the right time? Remember anyone who is ill or injured has rights to privacy and you cannot publicly reveal information about them. Hospitals, Gardai and other emergency services are responsible for releasing information of this nature-not you.

Media may put pressure on you in their inquiries by insisting that they have deadlines. But these are media deadlines, not yours. Buy yourself time with a holding statement that has three elements. Element 1-we are aware of reports of situation x. Element 2-we are investigating it. Element 3-there will be no further statement until element 2 is concluded.

When investigating an incident, timelines are important. Who knew what and when? If the story changes with subsequent telling, you have a problem.

Remember the Horsemeat scandal a few years ago? What made it take off in the media was that no-one, not the meat producers, the farmers, the Minister or the regulators had all of the facts in their possession. The meat producers went out in media far too early and their reassurances were diminished as it was revealed that they actually could not speak about the extent of the problem.

Contrast this with the makers of Tylenol. In 1982 an unknown poisoner laced several bottles of the product around Chicago with cyanide, killing seven people. Johnson and Johnson, the manufacturers had no idea what was going on or who was responsible. But they knew that they would have to tell their key audiences something. So, they simply removed the product from the shelves, told customers with unused tablets to bring them back and then relaunched a product in the tamper-proof bottles we know today. Their market share went up because they decided to act; once they established what needed to happen, they then communicated it superbly and actually improved their reputation.

Your internal stakeholders are your first audience and you can make a situation worse by forgetting to mind key relationships because you are suddenly under pressure. No communication leads to a vacuum of information, encourages speculation and makes any subsequent communication harder to trust. Good internal communications practices help maximise your efficiency in a crisis, and build better relationships between employers and staff. So how do you ensure that your normal internal communications channels work in abnormal times?

Good internal communication within organisations works on the basis of three principles-clarity of the communication, trust in those delivering the message and the ability to get and act on feedback from your audience.

Clarity on the message starts by planning what you as an employer want your employees to understand after they receive the message. To be clear in your message use the language of your audience. Avoid long introductions and jargon. Get to the point quickly. If the news is not good, be honest with your employees. If you are reducing headcount make the selection process clear and objective. If you are reducing salaries make sure that you share your plans for the future with your staff. Make them a clear part of your future plans to encourage buy-in.

Trust can be so easily lost in a crisis. Trust is based on your ability to do what you say. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. If for some reason trust is an issue, change the messenger. Find someone in your organisation who your audience trust and let them deliver the message. In strategic communications planning, trustworthy people amongst audiences are called champions. If you are not your own organisation’s champion, find someone who is because if your audience no longer trusts you, your message will be lost.

Finally, make sure that you make the communication a two-way process. Check in with your employees, (or champions) to see if the communications are clear. The general rule is that the more we remove the human element from a communication, the less effective it is. So, a group e-mail entitled ‘Hi all’ will never have as much impact as meeting. Speak to people. Have a video conference or conference call. Write an e-mail only as a follow-up. But check in with your people to make sure that the message is understood after the communication.

When media come calling, the best approach is to ask for questions to be e-mailed in. Don’t comment when invited to do so on a call. Make sure that your staff who are front of house understand the protocol for dealing with media inquiries-clarify what information is being sought and pass it along. No comments or promises to media, no answering questions. Find out who is looking for information and pass it on.

So, what do you do next? Test your internal communications by asking your internal audience if they like the way they are getting their information. Make sure you have a good Crisis team set up. It should have key decision makers, all of your communications people and someone who is able to watch and manage social media (this is a useful way to see what is coming down the line in terms of comments and what people are thinking and saying). Run a crisis scenario, or get a specialist company to do this and test your people and their reactions under pressure. Work out how you plan to deal with media queries and who should decide if and when to go out.

Plan to keep the internal communication regular. Keep the message simple, clear and as direct to your audience as possible. Develop trust by doing what you have committed to do and use other trustworthy stakeholders to deliver your message. And keep checking in with your audience about how they are being communicated to. That act will be the foundation of better relationships between employers and employees after the crisis passes.

Barry McLoughlin is a consultant with The Communications Clinic