How Internal Communication can guide employees through major crisis


When major crisis strikes, it can be a nightmare period for any company and ineffective practice from Internal Communication can lead to devastating ramifications. How do you ensure that your employees remain engaged through such periods and don't become an angry mob? Luke Dodd explores the topic.



When the rumblings of an organizational crisis begin, a skilled communicator understands how critical their actions are in ensuring employees make it through the process as engaged and informed as possible. Failing to provide enough knowledge or context to your workforce could have damaging results for your company.

Take the case of HMV. The entertainment retailer had a social media meltdown recently when staff took over the company's Twitter account to express anger at being fired [click on the image below to see the tweets in full]. Employees “live blogged” their own sacking on the site and HMV moved to delete the posts from the @hmvtweets account, which broadcast the news to its 60,000+ followers.

To keep employees engaged through the crisis process and protect both internal and external reputation, there are key actions you can take.


Look to the future, without ignoring the past

William Bridges (Managing Transitions, 2003) believes that crisis communication most often fails when companies focus on making the necessary organizational changes, but fail to put the effort into helping people mentally make the transition. “When a crisis happens without people being guided through a mental journey, it's just a rearrangement of the chairs,” he says.

He argues that one of the biggest mistakes organizations make is to focus all their energy on getting people to move to a new way of doing things, when actually the first challenge is to get them to let go of the old ways first. “Beginnings depend on endings. The problem is, people don’t like endings”. He identifies three key stages during a crisis: the ending – letting go of the way they’ve always done things; the neutral zone – the “in between” time when the old way isn’t there any more, but the new one isn’t in place yet either; and the new beginning – moving forward and making the change start to work.

To help employees through these different stages, Bridges' suggests some key actions communicators can take: 

  • Make sure you know what people practically stand to lose or will have to leave behind, so you know how they’re likely to react and you can plan how to deal with it. 
  • Help people understand why the change is happening and take ownership of it. Let them see the problem firsthand for themselves, perhaps by talking to disgruntled customers. Create a level of discomfort where they are now, so they feel more inclined to let it go.
  • Spell out specifically what you want people to stop doing, and what you want them to start doing instead. Saying “be more customer focused” or “work as a cross-functional team” isn’t enough. People need to know how you actually want them to behave differently.
  • Talk to people about the transition process, so they understand that things may well feel challenging – it’s not just bad planning on the organization’s part.
Bridges also advises to focus on four areas to help employees into the new beginning phase:
  • Explain the purpose behind what you’re aiming for, so people can see why they should invest their energy in helping you get there.
  • Paint a picture of what it will look and feel like – what, in practical, detailed terms, will the future be like for people? How does their working day look?
  • Set out a step-by-step plan of what needs to happen to make the new beginning a reality.
  • Give each person a part to play in the plan, so they can contribute and participate.

To find out more about Delivering Effective Change Communication, click here to view the research report.


Be transparent

Rather then sending out only positive messages, it's important to be honest with your workforce. To transform a company, people must align themselves and work together toward one goal, but this cannot happen without a culture of trust. Trust itself has become a currency for business relationships with employees and consumers alike.

Click here to see what Edelman, producers of the global Trust Barometer, advise are the 16 key attributes for building trust.

The focus needs to be on supporting employees through the change, rather than trying to spin communication. Internal and external demands for transparency across the board, as a result of the recent years of “rocky” economic and social environments, has the potential to transform corporate processes and priorities as never before. Darren Briggs of The Company Agency agrees. “Twenty years ago, it was easy for companies to hide, but the internet and the explosion of digital media means that we live in a news and information society, so no stone is left unturned. Corporate websites, news media and even employee blogs mean that employees can find out more about their company through external sources than they do from the company itself.” 

Itself no stranger to crisis, News International promotes a transparent collaborative culture for its employees to help them connect to the business and their counterparts globally through difficult times. Part of this effort includes OurNews – the organization’s Jive-based enterprise social business platform, which provides a home for this collaborative environment.

Click here to read our interview with Tiffany LeBanca, Senior Vice President, Internal Communications, News International.


Identify internal brand champions

Rather than responding to all external media, focus your efforts on identifying the biggest influencers to support and spread your message as otherwise you'll be fighting a losing battle. RBS faced reputational crisis following the economic donwturn in 2008, but looked to create a support network for its engaged employees to collaborate and provide the Internal Communication team with insight into the issues facing the broader workforce.

They even supplied those champions with an unmoderated comments boards to share this feedback, which was a bold move and one that provided the Internal Communication team with invaluable information to help rebuild the bank's internal reputation. 

Click here for more information on RBS's Ambassador Network program.


Ensure visible leadership

A CEO during crisis cannot afford to hide, they must be visible to key audiences and to the public at large in order to create and maintain a sense of leadership and direction. When it comes to delivering good news to receptive audiences, most leaders can be masterful communicators. But the same should apply when the circumstances are difficult and the audience is skeptical, or even hostile, says Sonia Aplin, Head of Communications at Ericsson, Australia and New Zealand.

“You can prepare leaders to communicate through a crisis by implementing media training, showing them both good and bad examples of crisis communication and, most importantly, talking through with them the implications of actions in their own language – around the financial and reputational implications of inaction,” says Aplin.

Click here for more information on how to work with leaders during crisis for business success.

Instilling a framework whereby employees and leaders have a direct path to one another to make strategic decisions is another route to maintaining trust. Avery Dennison involved employees in this high-level strategy development by creating The Beat – a global community who are called upon regularly to submit real-time feedback and generate innovative new ideas. As employees know their ideas are valued and appreciated by senior leaders, it builds the trust in the exec team and ensures that they are a constant visible presence across the business.

Click here to see how Avery Dennison set up The Beat.

Explore the critical role Internal Communication can and must play in change - and how best to manage the process. Join us for our new Effective Change Communication course in London on May 15.


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