When your business turns upside down due to a crisis event, start your crisis communications plan from the inside out.
When the unexpected happens, your gut reaction as a leader is often to focus on immediate communication with customers. This drive derives from both the positive desire always to be customer-centric and the fear of lost business and long-term impacts.
Quick communication is essential, but the success of these efforts will depend on the consistency of your “official” external messages with what your employees have to say and how they say it both on the job and off.
Developing a strong internal employee communication plan is the foundation for a positive company culture, exceptional customer experience, and a favorable impression in your community.
Start With the Basics
Ideally, you’ll be able to plan ahead using hypothetical scenarios. In quiet times, develop a Business Continuity Plan that includes employee communication guidelines. Whether you imagine a hurricane, fire, flood or pandemic, you can outline the basics.
For example, the plan might include the following example process:
- At the first indication of a possible impact, leadership meets and identifies the communication needs likely to result
- First communication (define email, conference call, or in-person) to employees of the impact and that leadership is reviewing needs and options to ensure business continuity
- Next communication outlines the first stages of business response, acknowledges remaining questions to be answered, and sets the cadence for future regular communications
Make sure your plan defines who should be included from the leadership team to develop a communication plan and describes how you will communicate – is email, a conference call, a Microsoft Teams organization-wide message, or an in-person meeting best? You may decide this on a case-by-case basis, and it might end up being a combination of all options. If you include criteria for which you use for different needs, it will help you move quickly in the heat of the moment.
Once you define your process, you’re ready to move to the next step.
Prepare Your Response Messages
Before jumping in with a spontaneous response, pause. Take a moment to:
- Identify likely employee concerns.
- Prepare answers to as many concerns as possible.
- Acknowledge the questions you can’t answer immediately.
- Provide an expected timeline for when you might have answers.
- Provide a process for questions you may not have considered – whether a “questions@” email address that routes to a leadership group or one central person. To maintain trust, you must commit to responding to each question received.
But don’t pause for too long.
Leaders sometimes feel it is best not to say anything until complete answers are available. This approach is a mistake. Employees need to feel confident that you are considering solutions, even if you’re not ready to share all the details. Timing is critical– know employees will begin to worry immediately about both their concerns stemming from the business impact and about appearing competent in front of customers.
Without rapid communication from leadership, it is difficult for employees to provide great customer service. They will face customer questions immediately. As soon as possible, provide tools like talking point documents, scripts or email templates to make answers to likely customer questions easily accessible. For example, a distribution company would include information about changes to normal delivery schedules (Will they change or stay the same? If you’re taking it day by day, share that, too.)
Tone also matters – don’t fall into the trap of trying to be overly casual. Employees need to know you take their concerns seriously, and they will follow your lead in how they communicate outside the company. Remember, the general public and media representatives may contact your employees directly. Do you have guidelines for how these contacts route through your company and are all of your employees aware of how you want media queries handled?
As the situation evolves, sharing regular updates will be important. Ongoing communication may be something as simple as a weekly employee email with updates on business continuity efforts. Consider setting up a simple intranet page to have a go-to location for employees to check for communication templates, relevant news or revised business processes.
Also, think about how employees will work and communicate with each other during the crisis if the situation requires working off-site. The value of good collaboration tools for daily work becomes even more evident during a disaster. Small offices may use file share services or video chat already. But these don’t support day-to-day operations and communication very well—even a simple “Who is working today?” This type of visibility is a benefit to using a true collaboration platform. For example, status indicators in Microsoft Teams effectively allow coworkers to look over and see if someone is “at their desk” if they have a question.
If your company isn’t using a solution like Microsoft Teams, develop a process for checking in each day. For a small workforce, this could be a simple morning email with each person responding and sharing their plans and needs for the day.
Checking in has another function: verifying everyone’s safety and well-being. Internal communications efforts are meaningless if team members are in danger or unwell. What is your process for making sure no one is missing?
For example, I experienced the need for this while working at a downtown office during a gas explosion that leveled part of a city block. We had to evacuate, and it was critical for each department to ensure their group was out of the building safely, a physical headcount completed, and confirmation communicated back to leadership.
The Covid-19 pandemic presents the challenge of checking in on employees frequently over a longer period of time and possibly in a new work from home arrangement. In a remote work environment, you can mimic physical headcounts through scheduling check-in meetings, by creating a calling tree or setting up a buddy system.
Once you have the plan, process and key messages determined, you can be confident you have set your employees up for success to help your business weather the crisis.