Internal Communications: Under Attack

The worst thing you can do when your company is faced with a crisis is let employees find out from the media. Lexie Williamson reports on how best to prepare staff for difficult times

Imagine you're on your way to work. You've tuned in the radio, half listening to the news, when you hear your company name mentioned. According to the broadcaster, your company is cutting 4,000 jobs and the radio presenter is the first person you hear the news from.

This is a classic example of how not to conduct internal communications. When a company comes under fire externally, due to anything from job losses to litigation to unacceptable behaviour among misbehaving staff, an attack from lobbyists on executive pay, or in a Government inquiry, it is the internal communicators who have the crucial role of ensuring that employees are kept well-informed and reassured.

Failing to fill the communications void after a crisis hits may lead staff - bombarded by the media's version of events - to reach their own conclusions and respond accordingly.

Exactly how you transmit your internal comms messages during a crisis can depend on your line of work. A computer firm with desk-bound employees, for example, might opt for the intranet, whereas a high-street chemist could ask sales staff to listen to a recorded message about a product recall on their telephones.

The BBC had one of the toughest internal communications challenges to face during the Hutton Inquiry.

To ensure staff knew where the BBC stood on the matter, the corporation opted for video to broadcast a message from its director general, Greg Dyke, to talk about the BBC's role in the events.

'Film works well for the BBC because it's our medium, and it enabled Greg to create a bond with employees,' says the corporation's head of internal communications Russell Grossman.

What did Dyke say? Not much, according to Grossman, but it's better to say you can't talk than simply to keep quiet. 'In the beginning there was very little that we could tell employees about the inquiry that hadn't already been picked over by the newspapers,' he says.

'But it was important to be clear that we weren't ignoring it. We told staff they could find an objective daily digest of the inquiry on the BBC intranet,' Grossman adds.

People clearly want to feel proud of the company they work for, and if this is damaged, it can impact on their loyalty, motivation and productivity.

'You must give your employees ammunition to defend your company both in the business world and their social environment, otherwise myths will circulate,' advises Andy Knott, director of internal communications consultancy Hedron, whose clients include BP, Airtours and BSkyB.

Indeed, the first step to take when a big media story hits is to decide if you are going to respond.

'By responding you are dignifying the article and implying it might contain a grain of truth,' says BAE Systems employee involvement and communications director Stephen Windsor-Lewis, who is also chair of the Internal Communications Alliance. 'But if you do respond, you need to find out what your employees are feeling about the issue first.'

This early step of gauging internal feeling is essential, he argues, in deciding how best to maintain loyalty and calm fears. 'There is a massive temptation, particularly among communications experts, to guess what employees are thinking,' Windsor-Lewis adds. 'One way to find out is to place a question about the story on the intranet or simply gather anecdotal evidence by asking three or four people for their thoughts.'

But, he advises, keep listening in the days after the story breaks. 'Don't go on the initial hot-under-the-collar response, for example, because (after a few days) employees may have changed their minds about how they are feeling.'

Timing the internal response to an external crisis is a crucial issue.

The golden rule is to not let your employees hear about job cuts from the media before you can tell them. But getting the timing right is tricky if you are a FTSE company and therefore required by law to inform the Stock Exchange of any news first.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has the added complication of having 100,000 employees in around 130 countries, so must decide with which employees it starts a dialogue about a 'crisis' first. 'What's a huge issue in one country will not be covered by the media at all in another,' says GSK vice-president of corporate internal communications Elaine Macfarlane.

She explains that, in a typical scenario, just before an issue is about to emerge the company would email an early awareness memo to a small group of corporate executives. These senior HR, comms and management staff - people allowed to be told of stock-price sensitive information - might then gather together their managers and brief them to expect, for example, a big story to appear in the newspapers the following day.

According to Macfarlane, what internal comms can provide in a crisis is context. 'It's very important for employees who have maybe watched a news bulletin on the company for us to give the background to a story,' she says.

This 'context' can be given by the CEO on his homepage, or within a newly launched internal site, GSK Ambassadors, which contains a subsection called Behind the News. Here, staff can view press clippings and click to read the company's position.

'Employees want to know what you are doing in response to an issue,' Macfarlane adds. 'The external environment has more of an impact on staff morale than anything that happens internally, and if they feel the way a company is portrayed doesn't correlate with their normal working day, they take it very personally.'

The biggest sin in internal communications, according to Grossman, is to lie. The theory is that if you tell the truth early on, employees will be more inclined to believe you. Tell it later and they'll think it's been dragged from you, leaving your credibility in tatters.

Neither Grossman, nor Macfarlane or Windsor-Lewis hired an external consultant during any 'crises', partly because someone who can handle both a crisis and the sensitivity of communicating it to employees better than the in-house team, is a relatively rare breed.

Although an internal comms consultant himself, Harkness Kennett director James Harkness can appreciate this attitude. 'An internal communications director knows his business better than a consultant parachuted in during a crisis, but often they are so embroiled in it that it's useful to get the views of an external person,' he says. 'I've experienced negative press, product recalls and changes in CEOs while I was working at The Body Shop, so it's useful to share best practice.'

The person you definitely want to recruit to communicate effectively internally is your own chief executive. Even if he or she isn't the world's greatest communicator, just make sure the CEO is visible. Even if employees simply spot him or her exuding an air of calm over lunch in the staff canteen, they'll be reassured that the storm is being weathered.

DOS AND DON'TS WHEN UNDER FIRE

DO

- Tell your employees about a crisis before you inform the media

- Have a fast internal communications channel that reaches all staff. Preferably, it should be separate from the usual channel, otherwise the crisis could swamp everyday business that must continue as normally as possible

- Listen to employee's feelings about an external issue and continue to listen as the crisis unfolds. This can be done by conducting telephone or intranet polling or by asking staff face to face

- Use internal communications to put a crisis into context to make sure staff know the background

- Prepare an internal communications strategy before a crisis hits; it's crucial to be prepared

- Involve your chief executive. Simply ensuring that he or she is visible will reassure staff that it is business as usual. A good leader is your best internal ambassador in a crisis

DON'T

- Stay silent. Even simply saying 'I can't say anything' is better, otherwise staff will fill the comms void with their own theories

- Lie. The further you depart from the truth, the more you undermine your argument, and if you do eventually tell the truth they'll conclude that it's been dragged from you

- Exclude local managers as you may loose their loyalty. Local managers are a crucial internal communications tool in a crisis, as their staff are likely to believe what they say

- Always immediately respond internally to a media story if it's untrue.

Simply by responding you are implying that it might be true

- Broadcast a sugar-coated message from the CEO; this belongs in the monthly newsletter, if indeed anywhere at all. Employees want hard facts

- Leave employees no ammunition with which to defend their company, either in a work or social environment.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.