This article was featured in the Hartford Business Journal on September 9th, 2013. Click here for the pdf version.
“Let’s hold a press conference” , “Let’s call in the board”, “Did anyone tell the suppliers?” Those are the sounds of an all-hands-on-deck respond to a crisis. What’s missing from those sounds is often “How do we tell the employees?” And, in my experience, the dumbest thing you can do in a crisis.
Your employees are your best community ambassadors. They are the stakeholders with the biggest stake in whether your company lives or dies. Who better to carry the message about the inherent good you provide ever day? Who better to remind the world why a crisis won’t derail your mission? And who, most of all, will personally grieve over the impact on your reputation when a crisis hits?
This employee grieving process hit me hard during the latest crisis we handled. As the press camped outside our window, unfurling their live satellite dishes like ominous balloons, we were literally hunkered down behind the blinds in my client’s office. Phones were ringing at the front desk as employees did their best to sooth panicked customers. In the halls, those same employees were struggling to deal with nervous customers who were troubled by the revelations on their morning newscasts. The only port in that storm was our “war room” where we’d set up laptops, cell phones and TVs. And that’s where the employees took refuge. They were shocked by the apparent misdeeds of an employee they knew and respected. They were exhausted from dealing with worried customers and they were embarrassed to be associated with their employer. They were so ashamed that they removed their ID badges when they went out to lunch, lest anyone know where they worked.
While this is an extreme example, I think it tells us that employees must be informed, supported and nurtured when a company is under assault. And this needs to happen before, during and after a crisis. Here are a few strategies:
1) Treat employees as your most important stakeholders when you plan for a crisis before it happens and when you’re fighting a crisis while it’s happening.
2) Distribute a media and social media procedure memo as your first step in any crisis. For traditional media, this memo makes it crystal clear how you want them to handle contact from reporters or bloggers. It directs them to send all media calls to one person. And it cautions them not to speak to any member of the media, even if they know them personally. The memo includes a phrase that they can use when dealing with these requests. It provides an alternative to the ever-damaging “They told me not to talk to you” comment. This does nothing for your on-going relationship with the media. Instead we suggest: “We have someone who is handling these calls. Here is her contact information. Give me yours too and I’ll send it along to her.”
For social media, this memo gives them guidance on how you would like them to deal with the crises via their personal on-line presence. In most cases, we request that employees refrain from talking about the crisis on any social media platform. Note that you can’t legally bar them from doing this. But you can explain why it’s best for the company if they refrain from speaking about it on-line.
3) Post all materials you send to stakeholders in a central location (i.e. your intranet) that employees have access to. These could include press releases, fact sheets or letters to customers or those affected by the crisis. Let employees know when you’ve updated those materials.
4) Allow your employees to vent. Any employee who cares about where they work will feel personally assaulted by a crisis. Managers have to be able to allow them to vent those feelings. We certainly saw that in that recent crisis. Employees came to our “war room” as a safe place where they could talk freely about the pressure they were feeling. It gave them a certain amount of comfort. That simply has to happen during and after a crisis for the good of the employees and the company. We often suggest that managers conduct both formal and informal sessions with employees during and after a crisis. These sessions should be both informative (what happened, what we did, what we’ll do and what it means to you) as well as conversational. By that I mean there has to be room for two-way communications not just “words from the top.” You may also need to call in professional counselors for employees who need help with their feelings of grief, betrayal or anger.
We handled one crisis that had employees crying in the halls because of the way their non-profit was portrayed in the paper. Their managers responded with compassion, acknowledging just how hurtful the article was. It allowed the employees to recognize the pain and move on.
5) Give employees a role in recovery. When crises hit, you’re the firefighter. Resist the temptation to think that you’re done once the fire’s out. Your post-crisis actions will be critical to recovery. That’s when it’s time to take back your reputation with the support and help of your employees. Establish and articulate an aggressive effort to recapture your reputation and give your employees a role in it. It will empower them to take back what the company lost and to feel pride in it again.
The great and philosophical ad man David Ogilvy once said, “Our company’s greatest asset goes down the elevator every night.” Make sure you include those assets in dealing with and recovering from a crisis.