PR TECHNIQUE - COMMUNICATING WITH EMPLOYEES: Internal comms in acrisis - Right now, talking to employees should be the first priorityfor business leaders. Anita Chabria discovers what you should advisethem to say, and how

Last Monday, American workers returned to their offices and began

the difficult task of resuming business. For many in New York and the

nation's capital, that meant wading through rubble-strewn streets to

buildings where safety concerns are still being worked out and

co-workers are concentrating on tracking down missing family and

friends. Even for those outside of Ground Zero, the emotional trauma of

returning to a normal routine seemed unusually abnormal, as if mourning

needed to remain a priority.



For internal communications teams throughout the country, those

realities mean Monday also marked the beginning of a long process of

helping employees to cope with the tragedy and finding ways to allow

companies to move forward with business while respecting the enormity of

the events of September 11.



Crisis communication for internal employees is a priority for most US

companies right now, but dealing with an event of this size and

magnitude requires long-term and comprehensive measures that most

businesses hadn't planned for.



Acknowledging the scope of the disaster, and that unknowns remain, is

the first step in handling the situation. Employees need to hear

truthful, sincere statements from top management even if that means

admitting that plans for dealing with the crisis are still not

finalized, and that management itself is feeling loss and confusion.

Most employees are looking for reassurance that the leadership

understands how devastating this event has been both personally and

professionally, and is working hard to help affected individuals and

normalize business operations.



"It isn't business as usual, so companies really need to avoid

pretending that it is," warns Pam Blase, managing supervisor at

Fleishman-Hillard in Kansas City, MO, who helped handle employee

communications for TWA after the crash of flight 800. "The leadership

can't ignore this topic."



Messages need to come from the top levels of management, preferably the

CEO. They also need to arrive by many channels and on a frequent basis,

using in-person meetings, intranets, e-mails, and even sending

information to workers' homes if they are not coming into the office.

Because the situation continues to change and political uncertainties

remain, issuing regular updates even when there is no new news is

imperative to help workers feel informed. This should be done on an

hourly, daily, or weekly basis depending on how heavily the company has

been impacted.



Michael Kempner, president and CEO of The MWW Group in New York, points

out that having two-way communication is also vital. Employees need to

be able to give feedback and have their concerns addressed promptly.

That may mean getting company leaders and managers to meet with workers

in small groups, or at least showing themselves in common areas.



"By showing up in the cafeteria, or in the factory, people see that

you're not afraid, and that you're confident of your abilities," he

points out.



Companies also need to focus on activities and initiatives that help

build camaraderie and boost spirits. Many people have been left feeling

helpless, and that often makes it hard to concentrate on mundane daily

tasks. Letting workers feel that they are helping relieves some of that

anxiety. Setting up blood drives, donation centers, and even flying an

American flag all help express a collective need to take positive

action.



Reminding workers that they can help the US economy by carrying on with

business can also give them a sense of purpose and contribution.



Unfortunately, some companies may be faced with negative reactions from

employees whose anger is misdirected at certain religious or ethnic

groups.



Managers need to keep a close watch for any backlash against Muslim and

Arab employees, and be quick with addressing potential problems.



"It's healthy for people to express that type of anger, but then they

must be brought into reality," says Blase. "There has to be a

zero-tolerance policy."



She recommends bringing in representatives from minority groups to speak

about their backgrounds as a way of educating employees. Many employees

will also need third-party counseling and forums to discuss their

emotions and losses with coworkers. Holding regular department and

company meetings to discuss personal impacts and future fears is a good

first step. Listen to employees who are afraid of business travel or

other security concerns, and help them make alternate

arrangements.Refocusing employees on short-term goals is also helpful.

Large projects and objectives may seem overwhelming or unimportant in

comparison to the human loss they are dealing with, so giving workers

easily obtainable, small goals helps rebuild confidence and

concentration as objectives are met. Don't expect those issues to fade

in the near future.



"In a disaster like this, it's going to be weeks before people are going

to be back to normal," cautions Hal Dash, president of Cerrell

Associates in Los Angeles. "People have to grieve, to pray, to connect

with loved ones, so the normal recovery time really gets extended."



With that in mind, communications departments also need to work closely

with human resources and top management to make sure that long-term

mental healthcare is available from professional counselors, and that

there is no stigma attached to seeking help.



Experts warn that the emotional fallout from this crisis will be

ongoing.



Companies need to follow-up with employees for at least the next six

months.



TECHNIQUE TIPS

1 Do acknowledge that this tragedy has affected every person and

business in the US

2 Do give regular updates on how the company is handling the situation

3 Do show flexibility in helping employees process the event. That means

allowing extra time off, canceling business trips, and listening to

feedback

4 Do provide means for workers to make a positive contribution, such as

blood drives or collections for victims

1 Don't capitalize on the tragedy for business purposes. Employees will

lose respect if you search for a positive angle or new business

prospects

2 Don't allow racial or religious tensions to go unchecked

3 Don't avoid discussing the terrorist attacks

4 Don't take a business-as-usual approach



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