Staff must be a crisis comms priority

Internal comms takes on even more importance during hard times.

Internal comms takes on even more importance during hard times.

Strong channels for internal communications are essential to any company, but even more so during a crisis.

The government division at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee (BCBST) - already under pressure as competition for large government healthcare bids intensifies this year - recently spun off a key segment of its business to a wholly owned subsidiary, Riverbend Government Benefits Administrator.

"The establishment of this new subsidiary status, coupled with the business and industry pressures, placed considerable strain on employees," says Kip Soteres, BCBST employee communications manager.

To alleviate the strain, BCBST didn't just issue a memo. "Electronic and print communications arguably don't communicate in the most fundamental sense of the word," he adds. "Leadership must get in front of managers and employees and say it face-to-face."

Soteres also suggests surveying HR consultants and front-line management to tap staffers' top-of-mind questions. He adds, "You can't spin your family. They know who you are. Only sustained, consistent communication will make a lasting impression."

Scenarios can change, so there is no one-size-fits-all crisis model. However, internal audiences should not be such a variable.

"You need to know who they are, where they are, how to reach them, what is most important to them, how they are likely to accept the information, and what we want them to do with it," says Chris Gidez, SVP, Hill & Knowlton. "This is, however, becoming more complex in a global environment."

When this data is gathered, follow up and internally publicize established lines of internal communication, before they must know.

Addressing internal audiences responsible for client-, customer-, or consumer-facing communications must also be a priority, "so decisions on ads, product launches, and promotions can be adjusted or even stopped," says Porter Novelli SVP Peter Eschbach.

One PN client - a national chain of restaurants that had two employees shot and killed outside one location - avoided such a snafu.

"They notified their promotions department, which was just getting ready to launch a new food product that emphasized partying," Eschbach recalls. "The news coverage of the shootings, possibly interspersed with advertising from the same chain with a festive theme, could have had a negative impact on the company's reputation."

Strategy also needs to take into account how employees access critical information.

"I know of one company where a group of employees still want to get company information posted on a bulletin board - the cork kind - in their locker room," he says.

Another PN client had a large percentage of staff who didn't have Web access at work.

"We did a quick survey to see whether or not employees would be interested in getting their company information delivered to their home e-mail boxes," Eschbach says. "About 80% said yes and volunteered their addresses. An additional benefit was that the information was shared with family members more than it ever had been."

Cell phones and PDAs are also channels that must be covered in a crisis, he adds.

Meanwhile, Matt Gonring, a consultant at internal communications specialist Gagen MacDonald, says the ideal strategy leverages intranet technology.

"An intranet is a valuable vehicle for communication under normal circumstances," he explains. "In a crisis, when people need a reliable, accessible, definitive resource for information, updated in real-time, the intranet should be the medium of choice."

Regardless of the mode of communication, sensitive information should be confined to audiences that legitimately need to know.

"A general rule: Never tell your mass internal audience anything you wouldn't want to see on the evening news," Eschbach warns.

It's always important to be aware of how some efforts may be perceived.

"For employees at organizations under stress, that beautiful brochure you've developed is likely to backfire," BCBST's Soteres says. "They're thinking, 'How much did it cost to make that thing?'"

Technique tips

Do
Make management visible. E-mails are not a substitute for face-to-face interaction

Internally publicize established lines of internal comms before employees must know

Articulate not just how the crisis affects the company, but also staffers as individuals

Don't
Assume how your employees will want to receive information. Survey them first

Lock into a long-term plan. Regularly revisit your strategy and survey employees

Tell any mass audiences anything you wouldn't want to see on the evening news

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