Last updated on August 10, 2023 at 01:53 pm
Perhaps it’s the 24/7 news cycle, but it seems like there is a crisis looming around every corner. Not all will have an impact on your business, but it’s just a matter of time until one does. Despite crisis communication being a major pillar of internal communication, most companies still aren’t ready to respond quickly and effectively. So, I’ll share strategies and best practices to help you develop a crisis communication plan.
What is Crisis Communication & Why Is it Important?
Before we talk strategies, we have to align on what crisis communication is and why it matters.
Crisis communication is all the messages a company sends to their employees and stakeholders during a crisis. These crises may be external (e.g. a global pandemic, economic, civil unrest) or they may be due to internal change (e.g. C-Suite changes, mergers and acquisitions, product recalls).
Whether a crisis is big or small, a company needs to be prepared with a crisis communication plan. This is because a company crisis can cause panic or disruption to operations. Creating an emergency communication plan in advance helps your company be more agile and quick to communicate with employees. This can save time, resources, and alleviate employee concern.
Crisis Example: Your CEO is replaced
While this might not seem like a crisis at face value, it should be considered one. Not only is there a huge change management component, but a new executive leader can lead to employees worrying about layoffs and how daily operations will be impacted. Therefore, it should be treated like a type of internal crisis.
In this case, your crisis communication plan would include:
- Letting employees know about the change. Try to time this with the external announcement so no one feels like they were the last to know. And also let them know why it’s happening.
- Introducing the new leader. Be sure to have that message come from them, preferably in video format.
- Communicate the go forward plan. Your employees are naturally going to have a lot of questions about what this transition means for them, their jobs, and the company. Address those concerns head on with FAQs and the company roadmap over the next few months.
- Ongoing communication from the new leader. Don’t assume you’re done after the initial rounds of communication. Building trust and transparency takes time. So, create an editorial calendar that goes on for many months that provides opportunities for employees to see and hear from their new leader.
What is the Crisis Communication Process?
The crisis communication process can really be broken down into seven steps:
1. Create a crisis communication escalation plan in advance.
It’s impossible to prepare for every scenario, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t outline a plan for the major types of crisis that might impact your organization. For instance, you might have to prepare for product recalls or shortages, bad weather closures, changes in leadership, and so on.
2. Verify and classify a crisis when it happens.
Once a situation arises, you will want to validate exactly what is happening. Thanks to all your advanced preparations, you should be able to determine if the crisis falls into one of your prepared scenarios and start following that comms plan. But you should also determine the severity of the crisis, who is impacted, and what the broader impact will be.
3. Approve the communications plan.
Ideally, you are already working off of a pre-approved plan. This will save you a lot of time during the approval process. But it is important to make sure that all impacted stakeholders are aware of the plan before you begin communicating.
4. Notify managers and leaders.
Especially for larger crises, you’ll need people managers and leadership to help support the message from the internal comms team and help hold people accountable to following the action plan. That’s why you will want to start with communications to your managers and leaders to let them know what is happening and what the plan is.
5. Notify employees of the crisis.
Unlike many change management campaigns, you won’t want to wait very long between notifying managers and then notifying employees. But this is why it’s important to classify the severity of the crisis. Knowing how serious it is will help determine your timeline and how aggressive you need to be about getting ahead of it.
So, let your employees know what’s happening initially, with the promise to follow up with more details as soon as you know more. It’s important to not wait until you have all the answers to begin communicating. But be sure to share what’s happening, the initial actions to be taken, and FAQs.
6. Distribute updates across pre-approved channels.
You will want to continue to update your employees about the status of the crisis on your primary channels of communication. This is where you will ultimately close the loop once a situation is resolved.
7. Conduct a post-crisis evaluation.
No plan is perfect, but it’s important that we learn from every crisis. Talk to stakeholders, people managers, and your employees to learn about how your crisis communication plan went. Did they know soon enough? Was there confusion regarding what was expected of them? Did they know where to go to ask questions?
Take this information and go back to your pre-approved communication plans so you can modify them for future situations.
What Are Best Practices in Crisis Communication?
To become experts at crisis communication, follow these three best practices.
1. Gather Stakeholder, Manager, and Employee Feedback
What have we learned in the last two years? I’m sure you can speak to changes you’ve made within your communications team and plan, but have you sought feedback from others? Do you know what different levels of employees still see as opportunities within your company? Do they think the company is prepared for the next impactful moment?
When gathering this feedback, it’s important to get a perspective from all employee groups (remote, frontline, in office, people managers, functional leaders, customer facing employees, etc). Ask questions about how the company has responded to past crisis moments and ask what they need within their role to be better prepared the next time they’re faced with a crisis. Also ask what they need to see and hear from leadership to have confidence in the resolution of a crisis.
EXAMPLE: I think some people at Southwest Airlines should be very busy gathering this feedback in the coming months:
- What did their customer service representatives and social media teams need to solve customer problems?
- How could they have helped their flight crews do their jobs effectively in that scenario?
- What did people leaders need to better support their employees with information and updates?
- What is being done to quickly update the technology breakdown that caused the issue in the first place?
2. Plan for the Unplanned
Many companies make plans for known threats and crises. But not many think of the unthinkable. This is why so few companies were really prepared for the scale and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even though it’s impossible to predict the future, your company can still make disaster plans. Gather your stakeholders and brainstorm what these scenarios might be and create mock plans for how you would address it as a company. You can use your existing crisis plans as a template and then assign responsibilities so everyone is prepared.
3. Put your people first.
Crisis is scary. It’s even scarier if you’re a frontline worker who isn’t getting sufficient communication. When making your plans and even implementing them, really consider the employee experience and the impact on your teams.
Example: In 2022, we saw a string of layoffs where CEOs totally dropped the ball. Their messages didn’t feel genuine when they maintained a high salary but insisted that layoffs were the only solution to the economic downturn. This message doesn’t feel good to the employees who were laid off, does it? And it also hurts morale for the employees who stay. This is why it’s incredibly important to craft your messages carefully and coach your CEO on how to show up in these video messages.
What is the Most Common Crisis Communication Mistake?
We think the main mistake a company makes with their crisis communication response is that they take too long to respond.
Many communicators and executive teams want to wait until they have all the answers before they tell employees what’s going on and what they should be doing. But that lack of communication leads to a ton of confusion and panic.
I often say, not communicating still communicates something. But unlike the message you carefully craft, not communicating is open to interpretation. Some might take your silence to be a sign of disrespect—that the company thinks they can’t handle the truth. Others may interpret it to mean only bad news like layoffs. And some might even think that the company has no clue what it’s doing and lose trust in leadership.
To avoid this:
- Share updates when you have them. Even if you know nothing about your plan yet, let employees know that you are, at least, aware of the situation and working on a plan. This is a great time to plug where they can go for specific questions.
- Have your plan prepared in advance to speed up the approval process.
Why is Crisis Communication Difficult?
Crisis communication is difficult for both internal communicators as well as the recipients of the information.
Often in a crisis, your employees may experience the effects of communication overload. In a complex or severe crisis, there is a lot to communicate. They may experience fatigue from this or just feel like they can’t keep up with the amount of information they are receiving on top of what they need to keep the lights on.
But communicating in a crisis is also difficult for internal communications professionals. The main reason? Because they aren’t seen as trusted advisors. A company with a trusted internal comms team who gets to lead the charge on the response to a crisis does not lead to a CEO sharing a video of themselves crying about how hard the layoffs were for them. Gaining the trust of the executive leadership team and being able to truly drive the internal response and strategy is the key to a successful crisis comms strategy.
What Are 5 Things That Need to Be Included in a Crisis Plan?
If you take nothing else away from this blog, let it be this advice about what is absolutely essential in your crisis communication plan:
- Who is responsible for what actions? No matter what, you have to assign responsibilities ahead of time. Who is writing the communication? On-call to answer questions? In charge of approving the message?
- A pre-approved communication plan. Even if you have to change things slightly, create a plan that makes sense for your business ahead of time so you don’t recreate the wheel every time there’s a crisis—big or small.
- A risk assessment and crisis categorization matrix. To appropriately respond to a crisis and know which pre-approved plan to follow, you have to have a quick process for assessing the risk and categorizing the scope of the crisis.
- An executive sponsor of the crisis plan. This is likely your chief communications officer if you have one or it might even be your CEO. But regardless, make sure your executive sponsor is bought in and part of the planning process. Having their trust and keeping them in the loop is key to everything running smoothly when a crisis does happen.
- A way to measure and improve. If you can’t measure how effective your crisis communication strategy was then you can’t improve it the next time something happens. And trust us, there will be a next time.
Why Trust theEMPLOYEEapp for Crisis Communication?
At theEMPLOYEEapp, we believe it’s important for communication professionals to have channels they can trust. And one of the most important things we enable a company to do is create a direct line of communication with frontline workers who often lack access to other primary channels of communication like email.
But our suite of products also make it easier on the communicator. With one content management system and analytics dashboard to manage the content on your app and intranet, we save you time getting communication out to your teams when it matters most.
Ready to learn more? Schedule a 30-minute demo today.
About the Author
Amy Jenkins is theEMPLOYEEapp’s Director of Client Strategy & Success. With over ten years of experience working in internal communication, Amy helps our clients create mobile communication strategies that get results.
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