Employees - A Critical Cog in Crisis Comms Wheel

Written by Duke Malan, Account Director, FleishmanHillard Hong Kong

A recent approach by a journalist from the South China Morning Post outside our offices was a stark reminder of the important role internal communication plays in a time of crisis.

FH Hong Kong is based in the same office building as a multinational firm whose Hong Kong MD was facing significant media scrutiny from local and global media on a personal issue. The reporter in question was randomly approaching potential employees for comment.   An offhand comment by an unsuspecting employee could have easily fueled the story.

Prior to joining FleishmanHillard, I spent a number of years in in-house PR roles (at a multinational bank, a global insurer and a nuclear energy government agency) and the importance of employee engagement in times of crisis cannot be overstated.

One such experience involved an advocacy campaign by a group linked to a number of allied health professionals exerting significant pressure aimed at forcing the hand of the insurer to overturn a health product benefit change. The product change saw a reduction in the number of annual consultations clients could seek with professionals such as clinical and educational psychologists.   Employees were inundated with calls, protests, online petitions and the campaign received significant focus from leading media outlets and key opinion leaders.  Effectively empowering employees with the facts (all patients in need would receive care) was pivotal in turning sentiment in the right direction and managing the crisis.

Here are five other tips for effective crisis communication to employees:

  1. Regularly educate employees on the media protocol and not only in a time of crisis.  At all times employees should have a clear understanding of who to route enquiries to and the spokesperson policy.
  2. Assume that all internal communication relating to the issue at hand will quickly find its way to the media and other external audiences.   The message for employees should be consistent with external audiences and not amplify the issue if it reaches unintended recipients.
  3. Develop an internal stakeholder map that outlines the key employees who own relationships with identified priority stakeholders (such as regulators, top customers, investors etc.).  This will ensure crisis messages can be proactively tailored and delivered in the most effective and direct way to these stakeholders.
  4. Accept that employees will talk to or be probed by friends and family so empower them to drive a singular and consistent message.  Employees can be a powerful asset for strengthening the overall company message.
  5. Customer facing employees are a critical proxy for the sentiment and key concerns from customers during crises and creating a process to quickly inform the crisis team on the aggregate issues from an employee perspective is vital.  While customer facing staff should have a brief script relating to the issue, issues are best dealt with by sharing the agreed company position in writing.