Crisis: an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs whose outcome will make a decisive difference for better or worse (Webster’s New Collegiate).
How many spokespersons does your organization have?
The correct answer is, “as many employees as we have.” While organizations can and should have a policy whereby only certain individuals are “officially” authorized to speak for the record, in reality it often doesn’t work that way. If a reporter calls and you have a designated spokesperson policy, the call will be probably be routed correctly, but that doesn’t prevent your secretary, an intern or a junior executive from giving their version of the facts to family members, friends, PTA members, golfing buddies and anyone else they know. In-person. By phone. By email. On Twitter.
Every employee is a PR representative for your organization whether you want them to be or not!
Internal audiences are as, if not more, important than external audiences during a crisis, and yet those who aren’t actually on the crisis response team often receive the least consideration when the stuff hits the fan. It is vital, during the crisis communications planning process, to formulate key messages not only for employees, but also for others who are close enough to the organization to be considered “internal” — e.g., regular consultants and major vendors. They’re the ones who are going to be asked first, by external audiences (including reporters, when they try to go around you), “what’s going on?”
Here are some tips for preparing internal audiences to be an asset to crisis response:
Develop one to three key messages about the situation which are simple enough for everyone to understand, remember and use in their day-to-day affairs. In an extremely sensitive situation, messages might be nothing more than reassuring statements and “nice no comments” — e.g., “our day-to-day business is completely unaffected by this,” “we know this is going to come out well for us when all the facts are known,” or “we’re a damn good company and I’m proud to work here.”
Brief all employees in person about what’s happening and keep them informed on a regular basis. In-person briefings say “we care about you” in a manner that no memo or internal newsletter can rival, although sometimes written communications are the only option. And you don’t want internal audiences to read facts, or alleged facts, in your local newspaper or via electronic communications first!
Identify your best “unofficial spokespersons” and your “loose cannons.” The former are employees who you know are loyal, know when to speak and when to keep their mouths shut, and who are admired by their peers. If they feel that they’re receiving accurate information and are being cared for, they’ll pass that feeling on to others along with the key messages you’ve shared. Loose cannons are those who just don’t know when to shut up, whose feelings — sometimes disloyal/disgruntled, sometimes zealously loyal — lead them to communicate not only facts, but rumors and innuendo. During crises, loose cannons need to receive gentle, but firm extra counseling about appropriate communication and/or be particularly well isolated from sensitive information.
Create a rumor-control system. Provide means by which internal audiences can ask questions and get rapid responses. You can designate certain trusted individuals (white and blue-collar) as “rumor control reps” who will field questions and then obtain answers from someone on the official crisis response team. And it’s important to also have an anonymous means of asking questions, such as a locked drop box combined with a bulletin board on which answers to anonymous questions are posted. All employees can be encouraged to use either communication method without fear of reprisal.
No rumor-control system is complete without comprehensive monitoring of both traditional media and Internet-centered communications – relevant websites, blogs and Twitter in particular. In the near future, look for my Media Bullseye article on tools for engaging in and monitoring Internet-centered communications.
Successful implementation of an internal communications program will carry your key message better, longer and farther than most external communications, while a lack of internal communications can completely undermine even the best external strategy. The two can, and must, go hand-in-hand.
Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., an international consultancy and author of “Keeping the Wolves at Bay: A Media Training Manual.” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.