A crisis comes without an address. What happens in a crisis has mostly been dealt with from an external media perspective but the impact to the internal audience is rarely taken quite seriously. Employees tend to get frightened and look for information, guidance, and reassurance. Often they hear what they want or expect to hear and there are “opportunists” who may try to capitalize on the situation (for various reasons – like profit, power or political gains). There are gaps in training and preparation for crisis management due to infrastructure, emotional strain on staff among others. These raise the level of constraint on successful communication. While we deal with the emotional issues during a crisis, taking cognizance of short attention spans and confusion of messages makes it easier for the internal communicator to comprehend the issue. It gets tough for people to hear you and assimilate the messages. To further compound the situation, there are bound to be problems like disconnected telephone lines, damage to buildings which may mar progress. The Mumbai floods and the tsunami were examples where organizations face these situations.
Clear planning can make a difference
In crisis scenarios, defining an internal crisis communications plan aids clearer thinking. According to experts, the broader and more developed your communications plan is, the better prepared you will be. There are a host of employee questions which will crop up and the team needs to be prepared to answer them. For example, in times of a crisis who does one turn to for guidance, who takes a call on decisions, how can you reach your employees, how do people find each other, what if there is an issue reaching the first point of contact and so on. Internal communication professionals can play a key role in directing the crisis communication issues in an objective manner. By engaging in simple briefings, postings and message creation. A standard boiler plate is handy when it comes keeping employees abreast of the issue. As far as possible, practice with employees to check their soundness in taking stress while answering questions. The internal memo from the leadership, the press releases that reaches employees first, the single number for emergencies, messages on the intranet need to speak the same language. Other thoughts to consider are language barriers and cultural sensitivities when one communicates across geographies. People also prefer various channels to receive their communication and therefore an attempt to cover all levels is critical to successful internal crisis communication. You may want to consider graphics to explain a point but use it with discretion considering the time on hand and possibilities of interpretation. There might be an explosion in demand for answers and the internal communications professional must be ably equipped.
Managing the message
It is imperative to relate to the audience, understand the demographics and level of crisis to define messages. Basic components include expression of concern, usage of facts, what is vital to the crisis, who or how we are dealing with the issue and commitment to the cause. Finally leading to more information they can access. Paul A Argenti in his book – Strategic Corporate Communications refers to cases from India – one in which effective management worked for the business and in the other which led to bad press. Tata Teleservices demonstrated the right communication tactic by refusing to be drawn into an open battle with the local authorities despite 4 of its employees being taken in by the police. It instead contacted the regional and national news networks and through its press agency outlined its case thereby averting a black mark on its reputation. On the other hand, a large, well known IT organization maintained silence when one of its top officials was accused of sexual harassment. One issue led to the other and finally the organization agreed for an out of court settlement. Despite that they received bad press when more news was flashed on the practices of the firm. Also in a recent episode where a BPO employee was murdered raising fears for the safety of employees working the ‘graveyard shift’, the organization concerned initially avoided making a statement. As the citizens got enraged, it snowballed into a larger controversy with the organization’s reputation getting tarnished. Finally, the leadership admitted its negligence in the episode and agreed to take steps for correcting the situation. Similarly, the episode where an employee was caught stealing data from an outsourcing firm in India. Some pointers which can help in planning your crisis communications are to set expectations, meeting the needs of the employees, working with facts, being direct and honest and making everyone responsible for communication. It might also help to tap your internal talent pool (Learning from the tsunami article – references) and map skills with requirements at the crisis communication framework building stage.
o Public Health Information Network (PHIN) Series II Claudia Fernandez, DrPH MS, RD, LDN, North Carolina Institute of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
o Argenti, Paul A, Strategic Corporate Communication, 4th edition, p 245-246, Tata McGraw Hill
o Verghese, Aniisu K, Learning from the tsunami, The Hindu Business Line, Jan 27, 2005 (http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/catalyst/2005/01/27/stories/2005012700240400.htm)