The power of internal communications

On a recent CIPR Crisis Communications training course, I was asked about how to inform and engage the internal audience during a crisis. Given the significance of those within an organisation as one of the key stakeholder groups this is a really important question. I asked Jenni Field FCIPR, Co-Founder of The IC Crowd and a thought leader on all things internal communications to share some thoughts.

During a crisis, with all the focus on operational response, engaging with external stakeholders and media management, the internal audience can be overlooked. As Jenni puts it, “Reading about company news in the press before you hear it internally is never nice and in times of crisis this is even more important.”

Two aspects emerge from this. If I were that employee and my organisation felt I was not worthy of being kept informed of a significant event affecting it, and therefore me, I would feel more than a little offended and upset. Secondly, there is a missed opportunity in that if the organisation had thought to keep me informed at an early stage then I am inclined to be more supportive and that support from me and my co-workers could be very useful.

The internal audience has skin in the game. As employees, they play an active part in the life of their organisation and, to a greater or lesser degree, have invested their personal collateral in the enterprise. In terms of reputation management, which crisis situations tend to threaten, the internal audience is an army of advocates waiting to be put to work. They are a highly powerful resource that, if properly equipped with appropriate information, can spread that content in a far more independent and influential way than the corporate wordsmiths can.

There is a huge amount of credibility in hearing someone standing up for their organisation when they are not actually obliged to do it.

If an organisation is to tap into that powerful resource then it has to be part of the wider incident response plan.  Like so many aspects of incident response, you cannot just make it up as you go along and hope that everything will neatly fall into place.  “Employees will want to know the company response and have the chance to ask their own questions and enable them to support the company messages,” Says Jenni.

Too right, but this takes time and resources and during an incident, both are in short supply.   It is therefore important that if the internal audience is to be actively engaged then they need an established framework for internal communications; where they can get information, understand how they will be informed and very importantly, what they are empowered to do. When their organisation is threatened many will want to know how they can help and what information they can share.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel on this. Whatever processes are in place for internal communications they can be used during an incident. That might be a blend of intranet messaging or face to face team briefings. If it works normally it will work during an incident, don’t switch the channels off because it’s bad news. Jenni observes, “It’s important to let employees know if they have a role in supporting the crisis.”

If you give someone a path to follow generally they will take it. Empower those within an organisation and they will act. It is the absence of a clear direction where things go wrong.

Jenni points at practicalities that would be important, “Ensure employees are factored into the Q and As and overall crisis planning. Depending on where the crisis has come from will determine what’s needed. Providing an opportunity for them to ask questions in a town hall scenario might be a solution or you might want to have a conference call to update people – think about your channels and how they are used in a crisis.”

I recall a major incident at an NHS Trust with which I was involved. We knew the incident was going to be big news and likely not to show the Trust in a good light. The Trust had numerous sites and the CEO recognised she could not be at every team briefing and speak personally to everyone as she would have wished. The answer was to record a brief video empowering each member of staff to talk about the Trust they knew, the care they provided, the professionalism of the staff and the number of people that they helped every day. It gave ownership of the Trust’s reputation to the staff and it worked.

This isn’t about making every employee a company spokesperson, in fact quite the opposite. The media policy around who and under what circumstances can speak to the media on behalf of the organisation should remain firmly in place. And that too needs to be shared regularly so everyone understands it. But in the wake of an incident or crisis, at Tuesday night five a side, or Wednesday evening aquafit there is nothing more powerful and persuasive than hearing someone from within an organisation saying, “Those rumours are not right. Actually what is happening is…..”

Sir Richard Branson is quoted as saying, “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. Look after your employees and they will look after your clients.” There is a real case for substituting that second “clients” with the word reputation.