Crisis Management: Staff on alert

When a company sails into choppy waters, it is crucial that staff are communicated to effectively to safeguard reputation inside and out, says Simon Ellery.

Whether moving a call centre overseas or announcing major job cuts, a brand is at its most sensitive when jobs are at stake. And with crisis PR experts estimating that around 30 per cent of crises are caused by disaffected staff, strong internal comms is essential in limiting the flak.

Nuclear energy giant British Energy understands how helpful maintaining employee relations can be. In 2002, the privatised firm called on government support after revealing it needed £450m. Its share price immediately dropped to 69p, a third of its all-time-high value during privatisation. But its internal crisis comms plan kicked in on the same day the story broke.

Through face-to-face briefings, its intranet, tele-conferencing and Q&A documents, the company ensured its 5,200-strong workforce was kept up to date.

Fighting back

Heading internal comms at the time the crisis broke was Sue Fletcher, now British Energy PR manager for Scotland. 'People became well versed in it; they knew what was going on,' she says.

Through strong staff comms and, later, through a campaign to engage staff to raise money for the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, the firm improved its reputation internally and externally, and Brussels has approved the UK state bailout package.

Furthermore, Fletcher highlights British Energy's strong links with local media, which help engage communities at the remote power plants it operates in coastal locations. 'Local media have always been very important to us,' she says. 'We are aware that we have a lot of audience crossover.

News in our in-house magazine is sent as press releases to local media.'

It's a cliche, but bad news does travel fast - particularly with the advent of e-mail and chat forums. Crisis comms veteran and Kissmann Langford partner Martin Langford is providing counsel to drugs company Merck, which voluntarily recalled painkiller Vioxx due to safety concerns of an increased risk of cardiovascular illness.

Although unable to comment on the ongoing case, Langford says the pharma industry is under a huge amount of pressure, from peers, NGOs and regulatory authorities. 'Communication has to come out fast and be 100 per cent accurate,' he says.

This often means being able to communicate in hours or even minutes with many different stakeholders, from the media to patient groups, doctors, nurses and government.

Staff comms is equally crucial, as well-briefed workers 'can be an absolute boon in times of a crisis, especially when you think about how many people they reach', Langford says.

Ensuring staff are informed can enable them to provide support during a crisis. Langford adds: 'You are less likely to get negative comments in the media if employees are on board.'

Image control

Another key factor is the quality of spokesperson. While a PRO may be good at drafting crisis press releases, he or she may lack the credibility and compassion needed for a local TV or radio audience.

'The choice of spokesperson is crucial,' says Langford. 'You need a very well-trained spokesperson who can stand his or her ground but be highly empathetic. That is how people judge a company. People watching on TV will ask themselves: "Do I trust what he is saying?".'

A problem when facing a crisis is that companies can become too focused on the media and fail to communicate with their workforce - an easy thing to do, especially if TV camera crews are stationed outside the office.

At the front end of companies facing crises are the administrators, and they place communications high up their 'to do' lists. For example, news that black-and-white film specialist Ilford was in administration hit the media on 24 August. Coverage was sympathetic and included news broadcasts featuring award-winning photographers - who had won Ilford-sponsored competitions that helped launch their careers - talking favourably about the firm.

Stories plugged the fact that Ilford had a long tradition in that it was 125 years old, and promoted its English heritage, given that it was started in Ilford, Essex.

In charge of creating that coverage was business PR specialist Bankside Consultants. Agency partner Simon Rothschild says internal and external communications were 'vital'. He says the agency was briefed to 'sell' the company as a going concern. But to adhere to administration rules he had to provide accurate information about the reason for the problems while trying to portray a positive image.

Staff can be both the worst and best ambassadors for a company in a time of crisis. Not only should employees hear about news affecting their firm before the media, they should receive it from managers who they can pose questions to.

They should also know who to call in time of crisis - perhaps through a document with contact information - while customer-focused staff could be issued with Q&A literature.

But one of the most important lessons is that internal comms crisis models need to be tested, argues Razor PR associate director Kirsten Davies.

The agency is involved in drawing up crisis models for multinationals such as Nestle, Heinz and Unilever Best Foods.

'Act quickly to beat gossip on the corporate grapevine,' advises Davies.

'Get an action-oriented message as quickly as possible to staff and give them top-line advice on what to do and who to call if they are met with questions.'

Bad publicity can cost brands millions. The role that disaffected employees play is often crucial, but those employers who invest in good internal comms, act quickly and are organised at times of crisis can limit fallout.

JAGUAR TAKES TO THE SHOP FLOOR

As Jaguar prepared for a major scaling down of production, CEO Joe Greenwell took the message to the shop floor in a wave of meetings in an attempt to ensure all 10,000 staff across three plants knew what the company was planning to do.

He sought to bring home to staff that the Ford subsidiary was making a heavy loss. But union reps roused local MP support, which led to high-profile street demonstrations, the intervention of Chancellor Gordon Brown and the formation of a government committee.

Jaguar director of corporate and government affairs Don Hume describes his boss's move to talk directly to workers as 'extraordinary' and says staff were told before the media. 'We always want to reach employees first because they have the right to know first,' he adds.

But Amicus director of comms Richard O'Brien accuses Jaguar of being 'disingenuous' about what it told staff and the timing of the press announcement.

He says plant closures were a 'complete surprise' to staff and claims that employees learnt of their fate through the media.

Hume dismisses claims the workforce were not briefed of the action. He maintains that Jaguar briefed employee representatives prior to a press conference on 17 September.

He adds that further details of the cutback plan were outlined in internal employee magazine Topic, news bulletins were issued and the firm held 'local management briefings by supervisors in local offices so that the guys on the shop floor were communicated to by people they knew'.

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