A receptionist can be an important voice in a crisis

I often think when a crisis hits, common sense goes out the window. Time and again, we work with clients to prepare for a potential crisis.

I often think when a crisis hits, common sense goes out the window. Time and again, we work with clients to prepare for a potential crisis. They will carefully review holding statements and Q&A documents and agree to the strategy. And then they will insist on only telling a handful of senior staff about it and not informing mid-level managers, much less all staff.

I find myself repeatedly asking the same question. What is your receptionist, or the person answering the main company phone number, going to say tomorrow when a client calls and asks if it's true that fill-in-the-blank about the crisis: the president of the company just resigned or the FBI was investigating a possible financial malfeasance?

If you don't make the receptionist part of the team responding to the crisis and protecting your reputation, she (yes, it is usually a she) will do one of two things – and neither of them is helpful. She will try to work out on her own the best thing to say when pressed, which will not have the benefit of background on the situation. Or, she will do what most people do: engage in office gossip. When the client asks “is it true that…?, she will respond in a lowered voice “Well I heard that…” And a great deal of your planning efforts will be undermined.

Frequently, there is good reason that you can't or shouldn't fully communicate to the entire team all the details of a crisis matter. Issues of confidentiality related to personnel matters, ongoing government investigations, and fears of lawsuits all are factors. But you also have to be realistic and recognize that in the real world, people don't just stick to the talking points and then cease conversations.

Think back to a time of uncertainty in a company you worked in – the rumor of a sale, the announcement of a merger, the departure of an executive or a layoff. Even as the trustworthy reliable soul that you are, you were talking to your closest confidante in the office and likely one or more trusted colleagues outside the office. It is human nature.

What I have often found is that in crisis, a lack of information among the employees causes gossip – from entry level employees to executives. And a cloak of secrecy on a subject causes people to focus on their own interests.

Conversely, if you bring employees together and tell them the company or institution is facing a threat, and you need their help in pulling together as a team to protect its reputation, most workers will want to help (assuming that employees were well-treated prior to the crisis). Most of us want to take pride in our work and our workplace, and be seen as professionals pulling together and contributing to the cause.

That is why we always recommend that a company or institution have as an integral part of its crisis response plan a strong internal communications strategy laid out. Usually information is tiered, with executives and senior management receiving a full briefing, more limited information provided to mid-level employees, and the essentials provided to all staff. We make sure they know who to turn to if they have questions or concerns; how counterproductive to the company's reputation or the institution's mission gossip could be at this point; and that it would be very helpful to management if they could let us know the feedback they receive from clients, patients, and others.

That, we have found, is the best way to avoid leaving how your biggest client hears your situation described up to chance. Remember, where there is an information vacuum, staff will fill it. Even if they have to make stuff up.

Justine Griffin is SVP and head of the crisis communications and reputation management practice at Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications.

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