Communicating during a crisis can be a difficult task, as it creates new challenges that business owners and managers are not usually prepared to face.
While interacting with customers is vital, internal communications with employees also plays a critical role in effective crisis communication and aids in strengthening a business.
To help clarify how to communicate with employees during a crisis, Pitch talked to experienced Human Resources Leader, Sally O’Connor. Sally draws on her years of executive HR experience, working with companies such as Darling Downs Hospital and Health Service, Burrana, John Deere and the Royal Australian Navy, to provide valuable insights into how you should be communicating with employees.
Sally O’Connor, Human Resources Leader
Be open and transparent about your crisis plan:
In times of crisis, Sally indicates that the top priority is to have a robust crisis management plan and team in place. Employees should be aware of these plans from the early stages to ease concerns and initial anxieties, and this should be followed with updates as the plans evolve. It is critical that you are open about the issues that your company is addressing and outline clear milestones for when next steps or communication updates will be scheduled and stick to these schedules.
The frequency that you communicate with employees through this period depends on the nature of your crisis. For a crisis that is short-lived and quickly evolving, communications may be daily, however, in a long-term crisis, initial contact will be regular and frequent but will slow down as time goes on. Remaining transparent in your communications throughout a crisis will help build trust with your employees.
Whether it is the CEO, Managing Director, Owner, or specially appointed crisis management team leader communicating during the crisis, employees will be looking to a business leader for answers and strong leadership.
Consider not just what to communicate, but how:
The language you use to communicate with your employees during a crisis can either help or hinder the situation. Sally suggests that the best approach is to incorporate empathetic and supportive language. To ease the anxieties of your employees, make the message about them, their impacts, and the possible concerns they might have.
Spend time with your employees and listen to their concerns, then look at the situation from the employee’s viewpoint and think about what they would like to hear and address their concerns as a group. Although you can voice your issues, don’t make a crisis about you. Additionally, Sally advises avoiding communicating untrue or misleading messaging that makes assumptions not based on facts. This can destroy your credibility and diminish the trust between you and your employees.
Allow for two-way communication:
When communicating with employees during a crisis, Sally stresses there are no right or wrong answers, as the channel you use depends on the situation. She states that “the richer the communications method, the better in most cases,” exampling face-to-face communication. However, when employees are dispersed, or everyone is working from home and face-to-face communication isn’t possible, using a combination of video calls, recorded video messages, phone calls, and emails are is best way to communicate your message effectively.
No matter what method you use, give your employees a space to ask questions. Create talking points and prepare for the questions they might ask so you aren’t uncomfortable and put on the spot, and if you are unsure of an answer, say so and follow up as soon as possible.
Sally says social media is an appropriate channel for contact throughout a crisis and should be integrated into your structured communication plan. If your company uses sites such as Yammer, she suggests you create a sub-page for crisis communications, giving employees a direct place to go if they have questions or are seeking updates. Although it is not recommended to communicate through personal Facebook pages, official forms of company social media should be considered as a means of communication.
Offer easy access to support for employees:
It is important to support employees throughout a crisis. Ensure that employees are aware of any agencies or services your company has in place to help them during a crisis – many companies have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that employees can use. Sally recommends supervisors should stay in contact with employees during a crisis, watching for any behavior that may indicate mental distress. You can use simple guidelines from the “Are You Ok” program to help bring up concerns with others in the business. You may also find it helpful to create a resource for employees that details in-house and available external support networks.
Implementing this advice and opening a healthy line of communication between your business and its employees can help you strengthen your business and internal relationships during tough times, increasing your long-term success.