Corporate missteps or outright blunders occur more often in some weeks than in others. At times a corporation or other organization misjudges audience characteristics and needs or the nature of an event. Or crisis responses fall flat, fanning the flames of audience anger and derision. That audience almost always comprises clients, customers, and the public, all of whom have quick and perpetual access to online videos, press releases, and commentary by every pundit under the media sun. But an organization's crisis also affects the employees of that organization.
Most employees aren't tasked with speaking for their employers, with composing responses to a crisis or answering criticism from the public and the media when something that has gone wrong goes viral. But a crisis can touch almost any department or division, demanding various levels of involvement from its members.
Crisis communication has two competing dimensions—speed and accuracy. Some responders favor one over the other; some, for example, value a speedy response and may sacrifice accuracy to get one. Others prefer to gather information to solidify a factual response. Such gathering takes time, slowing the response itself.
The most effective responses require a balance. ECG teaches that the best way to achieve that balance is through preparation—scenario planning, pre-written information sheets on policies and procedures, practices that develop agility without haste. It extends to training rapid-response teams poised to dive into the particulars of a crisis situation. It readies designated spokespersons through sophisticated training that includes successful communication skills and empathic ethos. It prepares employees at all levels for their role in addressing a crisis.
Effective crisis communication stems from good Issue Management, an endeavor in which employees also play a critical part. Because they work daily with processes essential to keeping an enterprise functioning well, employees can often identify issues before they become crises.
If a crisis does occur, almost any employee can be called upon to provide information. An employee may be asked to supply a history of certain practices or to explain the evolution of specific procedures. An employee involved in the crisis situation or one who witnessed it will no doubt be required to complete an incident report. But he or she may also meet with or be consulted by spokespersons who must gather the details needed to compose and support the messages with which the organization will respond. Employees need to be prepared to offer what they know—concisely and accurately.
Too often, communication during a crisis occurs before all the information is in, before spokespersons have had time to gather facts, before management has considered the facts and determined the outcome toward which it is working. Especially during this early stage, employees can be one of the richest and quickest sources of needed information.
What if your organization is experiencing a crisis? ECG Principal Michael Vivion, PhD, a veteran of crisis communication interventions, notes, "Employees are often the point of contact with the public. If they don't know how to respond to a crisis, the company loses an important asset and perhaps even causes the crisis to keep bubbling." Crisis communication must extend to employees; they need as much notice as possible of the organization's planned response. They also need guidance on how to respond to customer or client inquiries or comments, a responsibility that HR should undertake quickly.
How should employees respond to media inquiries? "They don't," ECG Founder and Chairman Peter Giuliano emphasizes. "Unless they are the organization's spokespersons, they don't respond. They should instead refer the inquiry to Corporate Communications."
Not every crisis results in ruin, fortunately. Many end with improvements, with changes to processes, policies, or personnel that benefit an organization and its client or customer base or, sometimes, the wider public. Getting to that point is seldom pretty, seldom painless. Effective crisis communication, though, shortens the journey.