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