Master Class: What's the best way to communicate with staffers during a company crisis?

A crisis can hit any company at any time. When things go wrong and the media call, don't overlook communications to one of the most vital stakeholders: your employees.


Jules Andres

Director of corporate comms, Mattel

Keith Burton

President, Insidedge

Ron Kirkpatrick

National manager, executive and internal communications, Toyota

Maril MacDonald

CEO, Gagen MacDonald

Concetta O'Leary

Director, Burson-Marsteller Concetta.O' 

A crisis can hit any company at any time. When things go wrong and the media call, don't overlook communications to one of the most vital stakeholders: your employees.

In 2007, Mattel conducted several voluntary toy recalls and the situation quickly became front-page news. An integral part of our communications response strategy was centered around how we engaged with our employees on a global level.

Keep these three things in mind when engaging employees during a crisis:

Have a plan. Knowing what to do and who to call from the start can save valuable time in a firestorm of issues, and the single most useful piece of the plan is the contact sheet.

Be authentic. Develop messages that align with the company's culture and values. Mattel's internal and external messages during the 2007 recalls centered around a core company value to "Play Fair," which resonated in speaking as parents to parents.

Instill leadership. Having one consistent spokesperson in a crisis lends credibility and instills confidence - especially among staff. Over a period of several months in 2007, Mattel CEO Bob Eckert sent out frequent updates to employees through his "What's On My Mind" employee e-mail, keeping the entire organization up-to-date on the issue at hand before it was reported in the news.

In a crisis, first and foremost you want staff to hear about issues from the company, not from the media or social networks. Talk to employees before issues become the day's headline. Consistent and frequent staff engagement during a crisis - from e-mail updates and town halls to social media and digital communications - will give credibility to leadership, help keep morale intact, and ensure messages are consistent.

Jules Andres, director of corporate communications, Mattel

It was one of those days. Communicators at the medical technology company had done their best to plan for every contingency in announcing a wave of layoffs. No one, however, had considered the one errant "stone" in their proverbial Hadrian's Wall that could unleash the barbarians. To their surprise, when layoffs were announced, word leaked on Facebook among 25 affected employees connected as "friends," and it quickly spread to the larger workforce, the media, and other stakeholders before the company could execute its official communications.

So how should employees factor into crisis communications planning?

Start with a critical question: "How will this crisis affect our employees and what do we want them to say and do to support our reputation - or at least not sabotage it?"

One size does not fit all. Think carefully about where your employees work, their job types, and how they interact with key stakeholders to shape and prioritize your efforts. And don't forget retirees!

Emotions run high during a crisis. Don't leave it to your employees to interpret the facts. Tell them everything you can in clear, straightforward language. Where confidentiality or disclosure requirements limit what you can say, be up front. Also monitor the media and quickly correct misinformation.

Communicate in ways that work. Intranet pages, extranets, hotlines, emergency notification systems, e-mails, webcasts, teleconferences, and face-to-face meetings must all be part of an integrated communications arsenal.

Remember that while staff in Mumbai or Caracas may not be directly affected by a Gulf Coast crisis, they need real-time information.

In the brave new world of social and digital media, online reputation is under fire 24-7. Don't forget Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, IM, blogs, and the array of tools that employees, adversaries, third parties, and others will use to examine and critique your crisis response.

Keith Burton, president, Insidedge

To borrow from Vince Lombardi's famous quote about winning, when it comes to internal communications in a crisis, speed isn't everything - it's the only thing. Internal audiences armed with the facts can be key ambassadors.

That point was driven home in January when Toyota announced a recall of 2.3 million vehicles for potential sticking accelerator pedals, followed five days later by a temporary stop-sale of those vehicles (and a remedy six days after that).

Both were announced before the news could be shared with dealers or associates. It wasn't by choice; it was due to certain legal requirements. But the lack of notice aggra-vated the pain felt by dealers and associates.

Recognizing the problem, Toyota Motor Sales president Jim Lentz sent out a message the next day apologizing for the lack of notice and promising frequent updates.

The very next day, the company launched Fast Facts, an e-mail alert with a summary of news items and updates to dealers and associates. Since then, Fast Facts has been sent out nearly every day, sometimes twice a day.

This required coordination among internal communicators at US sales headquarters in California, the US manufacturing headquarters in Kentucky, and corporate offices in New York City. Personal relationships, forged over years of sharing information and trading favors, proved invaluable.

With multiple time zones and constant deadlines, the staff worked in relays to gather news, write articles, and assemble links to media and blog posts for each edition. Each office appointed an editor who decided, based on readers' interests, what items from other offices would end up in that office's e-mail.

A shortened approval process was also vital to speedy delivery. Once a draft was ready, only one VP and one lawyer had to approve its distribution.

What began as an emergency measure has become Toyota's most popular internal com- munications vehicle, and plans to stop Fast Facts once the crisis ends have been scrapped. 

Ron Kirkpatrick, national manager, executive and internal communications, Toyota Motor Sales US

As the ongoing story plays out for BP in the Gulf, we have extra impetus to be sure our organizations - or our clients - have an updated crisis plan to address all audiences. Additionally, we should consider what we're doing today to build employees as advocates with the potential to credibly influence every other stakeholder before a crisis hits.

A well-thought-through risk management plan should consider two things: do we have the basic channels in place to communicate in real time? Are we going to behave in a way that is true to our cultural DNA?

First, real-time communications. Staffers need to hear what's happening from the company first - not read it in the news, see it on cable shows, or get it from a blog. This is the accepted "gold" standard. So, all channels - including your social media channels and an effective leadership communication channel - should be in place before they're needed.

Second is behaving in a way that reflects our real values. Employees don't just need the news, but also what to think about it. They need perspective, rationale, and context. Employees can be - should be - moved from being up to date with the facts to being advocates for the organization. They should be able to explain to friends across the street, and across Facebook, what the company is doing and why. They should be persuasive supporters of the company's intent. But if you're behaving in a way that's not authentic, they'll be the first to catch you and out you. That's not the way to build trust.

Put staff first and be true to your values. It will pay huge dividends during a crisis - and at any other time, for that matter.

Maril MacDonald, CEO, Gagen MacDonald

Just as with crisis communications management for external audiences, it's also important to communicate quickly about the crisis with employees. Ideally, communications to internal stakeholders should precede external communications, or at the very least occur simultaneously. Depending on the nature of the crisis, the initial communications should be in-person (such as a town-hall meeting) and contain all known facts about the crisis and the steps the company is taking to correct the issue or respond to its impact. Executives should acknowledge what is still unknown and commit to providing more in-formation and facts when they are available.

It is also important to integrate internal and external messages to ensure consistency across stakeholder groups. Crisis clients should draft a clear set of messages covering the issue and the expected resolution. The communications "owners" of the various stakeholder groups should use these messages as the basis for their communications pieces. When communications is directed to staff, these messages would be edited for proper tone and style.

Regular updates are also key. From the onset of the crisis, establish an expectation for when and how more information will be communicated around key employee issues. If possible, supervisors and managers should be provided with tools to assist with ongoing communications as they are generally the employees' most trusted source of information. A variety of internal channels should be used on a regular basis to support executive/supervisor communications and reinforce messages.

Managers should be instructed to solicit and collect feedback and questions for follow-up; and each communications channel should have a built-in feedback mechanism. The company should use feedback to gauge effectiveness and impact of messages, as well as staff concerns, and adjust tactics as needed.

Concetta O'Leary, director, Burson-Marsteller  

The Takeaway

Companies should have an alternate internal comms process that eliminates many time-consuming steps

Internal teams should reach out quickly, before news hits the media, and closely monitor media to correct misinformation

Companies must leverage high-profile corporate leaders as credible internal spokespeople via an intranet, e-mails, teleconferences, and social media pages

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