Crisis Communications Part III: Reaching Inside the Company

Crisis Communications Part III: Reaching Inside the Company

In parts I and II of our series on crisis communications, we provided an overview of what crisis in business is – and is not – and explored how to plan for crisis and respond to the media and other outside parties.

In this third and final part, we look at internal crisis communications – the all-important, two-way flow of information between employers and employees.

Focus Inward
Though we tend to prioritize outside messages (what will we tell the media?), internal crisis communication is every bit as important as what is said to external audiences. Company personnel are our most precious resources. Not only do they ensure effective business operations, they are also the rank-and-file staff in whom outside parties often have more faith than corporate officials (though designating spokespeople is paramount). Putting staff first is critical.

Have a Plan
The need for a strategy in advance of crisis to share with all levels of staff cannot be overstated. Not only does a plan equip your company with a road map of what to do if crisis occurs, it also imparts to your team how valued they are, building trust, morale and even work ethic.

How Will You Protect Your Team?
Assuming that you will brainstorm all manner of disastrous possibilities (and you should), the physical safety of your staff is top on the list of priorities. Envision scenarios that could pose bodily threat (a fire, flood, explosion, bomb, shooting, widespread food contamination), and devise a plan for how you will quickly and efficiently safeguard your team in each of them. Obtain advice ahead of time from police, emergency personnel, government agents, etc., as appropriate. Run drills of these procedures so your staff can practice and become familiar with them and you can assess their effectiveness before they’re actually needed.

How Will You Inform Your Team During Crisis?
Information is the first line of defense during crisis, and having push notification technology in place is a formidable shield against danger. Push notifications go out through various channels (text, email, phone alerts, P.A.) without requiring recipients to solicit – or pull – information themselves. These notices should be clear and explicit about what has happened, what to do and where to find further information, such as a dark website.

About Social Media
Social media is not ideal for the dissemination of information during crisis, to either external or internal audiences. Its potential to spawn viral false reporting is enormous, and the time and effort that goes into proper, up-to-the-minute monitoring is exhausting. However, because social media is an instantaneous and pervasive means by which anyone and everyone can say anything and everything, companies are wise to post an accurate, authorized, preferably pre-prepared statement about their crisis on social media. Boilerplate copy is okay, provided it can be tweaked and updated by vetted admins to individual circumstances. Heavens knows, you don’t want @ludesfordudes snapping a photo of your building’s fire and slapping it all over the Internet with no authorized response from you about the situation.

What Should Your Team Know?
Just as honesty is paramount in external crisis communications, total transparency must be the guiding rule inside the company as well. Provide staff with truthful, expedient, accurate information about not only the crisis itself (including damage to persons, property, reputation, stock holdings, etc.), but how it may impact their personal employment status, if at all. Let there be no time of silence, not only for the sake of trust and transparency, but to forestall the inevitable rumor mill that will grow the longer information is withheld. After push notifications have instructed employees about what to do during crisis, face-to-face conversations or audio/video conferences should ensue as well as point-by-point emails, internal memos and other company-wide communications about the situation and its impact.

Messages should be as consistent across all tiers of employment as possible and originate from the same source at the same time. This will mitigate misunderstanding of the situation and foster a sense of unity and ownership across the entire company. Convey to staff what you are doing to move forward in a positive direction – but be careful not to say more than you know. Don’t share anything you cannot verify.

Whom Should Your Team Tell – Or Not?
This question underscores the importance of keeping your staff in the loop, accurately and thoroughly informing them of the crisis as it unfolds and enters various stages. “Employees are increasingly important voices during crisis,” said Shel Holtz, principal at Holtz Communication + Technology in San Francisco. However, it is imperative that staff not speak to the media about the crisis. This is the territory of media-trained, designated spokespeople only.

Next, dissuade unauthorized personnel from posting information or engaging in commentary about your crisis on their social media, for the reasons stated above about the viral and erroneous nature of online discourse. That said, HR and communications experts differ on whether employees should be able to communicate externally about their company’s crisis.

Some say it’s simply not feasible to stem the tide of online comments and inquiries. Instead, employees should be armed with accurate and timely information to offer, if evoked, on their personal platforms. According to the Public Relations Society of America, “The natural inclination for many companies in crisis is to send messaging to employees and ask them to spread the word. But it only works if employees have been prepared, and if a discipline exists that allows them to do so effectively.”

Regardless of the differences of opinion on this matter, social posting should be done very cautiously and judiciously. It’s just too easy to get carried away in the exponential chitter chatter, and less is more.

What Should Your Team Tell You?
Encourage questions and conversations among your employees. Let them know there will be no reprisals for sharing and that your door is open to talk and, more importantly, listen. If possible, install a hotline or other line(s) of communication for staff to confidentially let management know of a potentially dangerous or damaging situation before it occurs. Examples of this might be witnessing abusive or neglectful behavior of residents by another staff member, in the case of a senior living community, or a malfunctioning gas line. Freedom to communicate in both directions is essential to the prevention of, reaction to, and recovery from crisis.

Thank you for your engagement in this three-part series on crisis communications. We hope this has been a helpful guide. If you have further questions or would like the assistance of our team of experts in planning for and managing crisis in your business, please feel free to contact us. We’re here for you!



Crisis Communications Part II: Reaching Outside the Company

Crisis Communications Part II: Reaching Outside the Company

In part I of our series on crisis management, we explained what a crisis in business is – and what it is not.

In this second part, we will examine external crisis communications and how to effectively plan for and disseminate information about your company’s crisis to the media, customers, vendors, stockholders and other outside interested parties.

First, it is essential to have a plan in place before crisis occurs. Be proactive, not reactive. Recalling that a crisis is newsworthy (something unlawful, immoral, unhealthy or even deadly), it is a fatal error in judgment to assume that nothing dire will ever happen to your business and that preparing for crisis is unnecessary. Let’s also recall that a bad review is not a crisis.

Here are some tips to prepare for crisis and the external messages to be conveyed in its wake:

  • Brainstorm potential situations. In the senior housing industry, for example, what could happen that would merit crisis status? Think of anything and everything and write it down. Here’s when it’s wise to go to the worst-case scenario, to imagine all the things that you hope and pray will never happen. A fire, flood? Widespread food contamination? Reports or evidence of abusive/neglectful staff? Sexual harassment or assault? A major lawsuit? A shooting?
  • Prepare mid-crisis action. Once you have determined all the possible crisis situations that could occur, determine what actions will be taken to safeguard staff, residents, the community at large, if applicable, as the situation is unfolding. Which public officials or authorities will be contacted, if necessary; which staff will do what; what onsite protection plans will be activated (exit procedures, lockdowns, etc.).
  • Designate spokespeople. WHO speaks about your crisis is as important as WHAT is said. Specific people should be designated – and only them – to make statements or respond to questions. Whether they are CEOs (usually the most appropriate spokespeople), department heads, marketing or PR personnel…whoever is authorized to reach out or answer to the community should be media-trained (see below). No one who isn’t a media-trained, designated spokesperson should respond at all, nor should any messages be conveyed without spokesperson(s)’ and participating officials’ approval (police, federal agents, etc.).
  • Prepare appropriate messages. Case studies show how to – and not to – respond to disaster in business, but keep in mind that no response is a negative response, conveying indifference, irresponsibility, defensiveness, or worse. In part I of this series, we cited three questions that must be addressed following a crisis:

    1) What happened? 2) What caused it? 3) What are you doing to keep this from happening again?
    Answers to these key questions should be formulated ahead of time and come across as positive and reassuring as possible. But they must also be truthful. Transparency in communicating what happened is absolutely essential
    A boilerplate response prepared in advance is good practice, but also craft messages that are unique to individual scenarios. Decide which channels will be used to reach which audiences, and make sure people with media training are monitoring and responding to social media around the clock. The age of social media has thrown fuel on the rumor mill fire, and “fake news” proliferates like a contagion online. Design advance messages that deal with each stage of crisis: the immediate aftermath and post-event follow-up.A “dark website” should be implemented as soon as possible. This is a page on top of your regular home page containing the most updated information about the situation. Any inquiries should be referred to this page until spokespersons can get out to the public or other channels of information are established.The passage of time will determine when to re-engage and disengage with the issue, but each subsequent message should be as acutely responsive and well-constructed as the first. Stay connected with your customers, stockholders and vendors throughout the relevancy of the crisis, because they are key to your credibility and recovery.
  • Provide media training. HOW a message is conveyed is as vital as WHAT is said. Only individuals who have been educated on how to maintain control and composure, exude confidence and credibility should partake in interviews. This person(s) should also be proficient in redirecting (not obfuscating!) unproductive questioning back to pre-planned, and always truthful, key messages. While preparedness is critical, designated spokespeople should also be able to think quickly and clearly on their feet, should unexpected inquiries or commentary come their way.
  • Establish a liaison for police/investigative personnel. In addition to, and separate from, a designated spokesperson(s), a media-trained employee should be assigned as communications liaison to sit on a committee of police or whatever investigative personnel the crisis warrants. The liaison will ensure that nothing goes out to the media or public without said police/official’s permission and will then – and only then – relay sanctioned information.
  • Enlist the help of outside partners. Be they health professionals, law enforcement, emergency response personnel, educators, law practitioners (note: lawyers should not be designated spokespeople), or other relevant individuals, rely on the expertise of professionals that can team with you if crisis hits. Arrange this team ahead of time, so that mutual trust and lines of communication are already in place.
  • Rehearse. Schedule a “what if” day, seminar or retreat to rehearse responses to potential crisis. Conduct practice Q&As; if practical, run a drill on actions to take during various situations (without alarming residents or other non-staff people); role play interview scenarios. Get creative imagining the worst – but be prepared!

In the next and final blog in this series on crisis management, we will explore internal communications, or how to relay information to company employees and their families.

If crisis strikes, let our team of experts guide you to recovery with appropriate preparatory communications and trusted public relations finesse.


Crisis Management Part I: An Overview

Crisis Management Part I: An Overview

Crisis is something no business wants, but all companies should be prepared for it well ahead of time. In this three-part series, we will examine crisis communications in general, then look at external and internal messaging specifically.

What Is a Crisis in Business?

First, let’s identify what it’s not – a bad review. In today’s world of social media, where anyone and everyone can say anything and everything, company reviews are rampant – and all-important. In fact, 65 percent of new business comes from referrals and positive online reviews. Checking reviews is now part and parcel of the consumer process. That said, however, a bad review does not a crisis make.

A company crisis can be defined as something unlawful, immoral, unhealthy, or deadly. More succinctly, it is newsworthy – a situation that can severely and lastingly affect a company’s reputation, profitability, employees, customers and perhaps even society or the environs at large. Think BP’s oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. And, though it was 36 years ago, we won’t soon forget the Tylenol cyanide poisoning incidents that spawned the placement of seals on over-the-counter medications.

Expanding on the newsworthy aspect of crisis, it’s important to realize that the media and their audiences love the “low-hanging fruit” of a dramatic story. And that drama is almost always negative. Reporters flock to a bad situation like flies on molasses, and they want to know three things to which all companies must know how to respond – in advance:

  • What happened?
  • What caused it?
  • What are you doing to keep this from happening again?

These three questions are primary and will come right away. But answering them truthfully and responsibly is only part of the PR finesse that will be required after a crisis. Secondary messaging is in order next, when more information comes through and the news channels and their readers/viewers demand it.

External communication is only half of the equation, however. Internal communication – what information is conveyed to company employees and how  – is just as vital.

Understanding that a company crisis is not a bad review (or even several), but a larger, more endemic problem that attracts waves of media attention, we are ready to explore how to proactively manage crisis externally, outside company halls and walls, and, just as importantly, how to plan for inside communications.

With the right plan in place, recovery from crisis can begin even before (or if ever) it happens.

Come back next week, when we’ll explore external crisis communications and how our team of experts can help you put them in place.