Employees Are a Key Audience in Crisis Communications

Employees are one of the most important, but often overlooked audiences to inform during a crisis.

Trust is tested when employees learn about bad news in the media or online before they hear about it directly from their own managers.

Competent crisis communications plans list employees as a priority audience that should receive critical information in a timely, direct manner. If you want employees to behave like partners in a crisis, you need to treat them like partners in a crisis.

Simply conveying the bad news isn’t enough. Employees should be made aware of choices the company faces – and, consequently, choices they may face as employees. Employees need to know whether it’s safe to remain at work and if operations will be shut down. They should be told what caused the crisis and how it is being addressed. They should be reminded about external crisis communication protocols in the crisis communications plan.

In a crisis, employees are a key audience that should receive timely, direct and honest communications about what happened, what’s being done to address the crisis and the role employees can play. Ongoing communication is essential for major, unfolding crises. The reputation of employees is as much at stake as the organization.

The objective of timely, direct crisis communication to employees is to enlist them in reputation management. That can involve asking for advice and seeking specific assistance in crisis response, such as being alert to customer or community feedback. Employees can be important frontline ambassadors if they are plugged in to crisis response strategy and action steps.

Employees should respect protocols for who is assigned and responsible for external communications in a crisis, but you cannot expect them not to question decisions or offer alternative approaches.

Because crises come in all forms and sizes, internal communication needs to be flexible and scaled to match the circumstances. Budget cuts and staff layoffs will send shivers throughout an entire organization and requires intensive internal communication. An isolated environmental incident at a company location may only require an internal alert. The bottom line: Timely, direct communication is essential.

Crisis-generated chaos should never obscure the need for informed, appropriate internal communication – or be an excuse for not providing such communication. The CEO’s time may be better applied in talking to the media, so someone else in the management circle must be delegated to inform and engage employees. That job is as vital as the job of communicating with the media.

Top management would be wrong to think bad news is something employees cannot handle, don’t want to confront or shouldn’t be told for legal liability reasons. A company’s reputation is inextricably tied to the reputation of its employees. It’s a partnership that must be honored by timely, direct communication, which in complex crises demands ongoing updates rather than a one-and-done statement or video.

Honesty is a must in employee crisis communications. They should know the truth before the news media and the public. They also should know what is unknown when the crisis erupts and how company officials are investigating what happened and why. Some employees may be valuable resources in uncovering the cause of a crisis.

Management should cultivate employee engagement in a crisis response through forthcoming communication, but not treat engagement as a loyalty test. Employees should respect protocols for who is assigned and responsible for external communications in a crisis, but you cannot expect them not to question decisions or offer alternative approaches. Effective internal crisis communication allows for two-way engagement and welcomes questions and alternatives, which often can improve the quality of a crisis response.

The reward for effective internal crisis communications is a more unified organization with greater respect for management and the corporate, nonprofit or public agency brand. No right-thinking person roots for a crisis, but when one occurs, smart managers understand it is an opportunity not only to protect a reputation, but burnish one. Capitalizing on this unwanted, unavoidable opportunity starts with a quick and thoughtful crisis response, top management buy-in and meaningful communication with employees.