Crisis communication: How to communicate with employees during a crisis
Last updated on: January 20, 2022
Even at the best of times, quality communication is one of the key prerequisites for a successful work process. However, its importance increases exponentially at times of crisis. Whenever an unexpected negative event impacts an organization, the quality of subsequent communication greatly determines the organization’s perception and reputation — both externally, in the public’s eye, and internally, among its team members.
Crises are unpredictable. They can happen to any organization at any time, without previous announcement. The ongoing pandemic is a stark example of a sudden disruption that has affected a large number of businesses. Rather than hoping that the stroke of misfortune will avoid them, organizations need to be prepared for such an eventuality.
In a crisis, time is of the essence, and organizations should not waste it on figuring out the lines of communication, the key personnel, and other mechanisms that could have been defined long before.
In this article, we will focus on internal crisis communication — how organizations communicate with employees during a crisis. We will define the basic related terms and highlight the best practices for internal crisis communication that ensure that all relevant internal stakeholders have all the relevant information on time.
Basic definitions for crisis communication
Before we get any further, let us first define the basic terms which will be discussed.
Timothy Coombs, the author of the Situational Crisis Communication Theory, defines crisis as “the perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important stakeholder expectations, significantly impacts the organization’s performance, and/or creates negative outcomes”.
In extension, he denotes crisis communication as “the body of messages created to address the crisis”.
This brings us to a broad definition of crisis communication as “the collection, processing, and dissemination of information required to address a crisis situation”.
Based on the different groups of stakeholders it addresses, Coombs goes on to identify two main types of crisis communication:
- Public crisis communication: messages (words and actions) aimed towards external stakeholders (investors, customers, suppliers, the general public, etc.).
- Private crisis communication: messages exchanged between the members of the crisis team and private communication towards the employees.
It is important to note that employees are a specific group of stakeholders, as they are the audience for both public and private crisis communication.
This is not only because they also receive the information distributed through public crisis communication, but also because parts of internal communication are often distributed publicly as well.
Ideally, private and public crisis communication should be consistent and homogenous, relaying the same messages both internally and externally.
While there is always a certain amount of overlap between public and private crisis communication, for the purpose of this article we will focus on the latter, assessing how to best communicate with employees during and immediately after a crisis situation.
What are the common types of crises in the workplace?
Crises are often difficult to predict, but they tend to fall within a finite number of types. While the specifics of a crisis are impossible to know in advance, organizations can still prepare for a number of common scenarios.
There are many different categorizations of different types of crisis, but we will go with the one provided by Boston University professor Otto Lerbinger in his influential work The crisis manager: facing disasters, conflicts, and failures.
The 7 types of crises are:
- Natural crises
- Technological crises
- Confrontation crisis
- Crises of malevolence
- Crises of organizational misdeeds
- Workplace violence crises
- Man-made disasters
Natural crises are crises caused by natural elements, such as earthquakes, floods, tidal waves, various epidemics, etc.
Such occurrences can cause significant damages and present a variety of challenges for organizations — human and material losses, operational difficulties, market disruptions, etc.
The specific characteristic of natural crises is that they are predictable — aside from their timing and severity.
This means that organizations can prepare and implement contingency plans and procedures (specific to different risks of their physical environment).
Such contingency plans should include emergency notification and communication plans to reliably reach all employees.
Example of a natural crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic
We need to look no further in history than the very current example of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This natural occurrence has caused a global crisis impacting virtually all organizations.
Technological crises are possibly the most common crises organizations face in today’s world.
They are caused by the human application of science and technology and involve a broad scope of technology failures — ranging from industrial accidents to various software and hardware malfunctions causing disruptions in operations and services.
They can be harmful not only to a company’s operations but also to its reputation.
Example of a technological crisis: The Deepwater Horizon oil spill
The British Petrol’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion took place on April 10, 2010.
It took 11 lives and caused an oil spillage 1 mile below the ocean surface which lasted for 87 days — releasing more than 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
It is considered the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, as well as one of the worst examples of crisis communication ever.
Crises of confrontation are occurrences intentionally provoked by individuals or groups in order to gain acceptance for their demands and expectations.
These individuals or groups can be members of the general public, protesters and activists, but also employees.
In order to cause a crisis, said groups and individuals use tactics such as boycotting or blockades, attempting to involve the media and the general public to draw attention to what they present as the negative activities or aspects of an organization.
Example of a confrontation crisis: The Netflix trans rights scandal
Netflix found itself between a rock and a hard place earlier this year when a group of its employees organized walk-outs and joined protests over what was perceived as transphobic comments in a comedy special of actor and comedian Dave Chappelle, produced by their employer.
Netflix’s response to the crisis (including publicized internal memos) has drawn much public criticism and even lead to a campaign to cancel Netflix subscriptions.
Crises of malevolence
This type of crisis incorporates a broad range of malevolent or hostile acts aimed at an organization.
Typical examples of acts of malevolence can be industrial espionage, product tampering, sabotage, corporate terrorism, cyber terrorism, and other forms of foul play — whether from competitors and other external factors or from within.
Example of a crisis of malevolence: Chicago Tylenol crisis
In 1982, seven residents of the Chicago area have died from poisoning.
An unidentified individual had tampered with packages of Tylenol (a common pain relief medicine produced by Johnson & Johnson), injecting them with cyanide, and then resealing the packages and returning them to pharmacy shelves.
Johnson & Johnson decided to pull all Tylenol from the market — and only made the medicine available once they’ve changed the sealing technology to prevent tampering.
Crisis of organizational misdeeds
Organizational misdeeds represent a broad range of failures of management resulting in harm or risk for different stakeholders.
Crises caused by managerial failures tend to fall within these three categories:
- Crises of misplaced management values — placing short-term financial benefits above wider societal responsibilities, exemplified by actions such as cutting corners, neglecting safety, ignoring regulations, or downplaying risks.
- Crises of deception — deliberate acts of concealment or deception, such as withholding evidence or lying about potential risks related to the organization’s products or services.
- Crises of management misconduct — acts of deliberate amorality or illegality, such as fraud, cheating, embezzlement, bribery, etc.
Example of a crisis of organizational misdeeds: The Volkswagen emissions scandal
In 2015, Volkswagen was found to be in violation of the US Clean Air Act.
The US regulators have found that the German auto manufacturer deliberately tampered with the software in some of its vehicles.
As a result, vehicles showed up to 40 times smaller emissions than actual.
Aside from a severely damaged reputation, the company has already spent more than $ 20 billion on fines, repairs, and compensations — with ongoing lawsuits both in the U.S. and Europe.
Workplace violence crisis
This type of crisis is caused by acts of violence, harassment, and discrimination by current or former employees towards other employees within the organizational framework. It is important to note that workplace violence refers not only to physical violence but also mental harassment and other forms of employee mistreatment.
Example of a workplace violence crisis: The Activision Blizzard lawsuit
In July 2021, California’s Department of Fair Employment filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard, a prominent video game development company.
The lawsuit contains many accusations of sexual misconduct and discriminatory practices against women.
Aside from the yet-to-be-seen results of the lawsuit, the ongoing fallout has led to multiple upper management resignations and a substantial drop in market value.
Furthermore, the company’s internal and external response to the crisis has led to still unresolved employee unrest.
This type of crisis refers to various catastrophic events caused by human actions.
Examples include terrorist attacks, wars, large-scale financial crises, and other events disruptive to organizations and markets.
Example of a man-made disaster: the global financial crisis of 2007–2008
Years of questionable practices from a global web of financial institutions have reached a catastrophic conclusion throughout 2007 and 2008.
The resulting global recession was considered the worst since the Great Depression, with countless businesses across the globe ceasing their operations or experiencing great difficulties.
Why is crisis communication important?
Crises are disruptive events that sow fear, confusion, and uncertainty.
When a crisis emerges, the organization’s key internal priority is to regain balance and stability and ensure the continuation of its operations.
This is impossible to achieve without the active participation of the entire staff.
To achieve any semblance of continuity in a time of crisis, organizations must ensure that their members are safe, informed, and onboard. Quality communication is key in this process. Organizations need to communicate in order to inform their personnel, allay fears, and provide guidance on how to proceed forward. Conversely, lack of communication will only increase the uncertainty and create room for rumors to spread.
Furthermore, in today’s interconnected world, every employee serves as a spokesperson for an organization. Effective internal communication during a crisis can be the key factor in employees publicly expressing negative or positive attitudes about the organization affected by the crisis. Good crisis communication will provide the employees with relevant information, as well as guidelines on how to address the situation publicly.
What are the stages of crisis communication?
Timothy Coombs identifies three distinct phases of crisis communication:
- Pre-crisis phase
- Crisis response phase
- Post-crisis communication
Each of these stages carries its distinct demands for collecting and interpreting information and then distributing that knowledge, which is why it is important to examine them separately.
Stage #1: Pre-crisis phase
The fact that a crisis hasn’t taken place yet does not prevent organizations from planning and preparing for that eventuality. The activities in the pre-crisis phase are focused on two areas — prevention and preparation.
Prevention of potential crisis
Prevention of potential crisis is reflected in the attempts to reduce risks by identifying emerging developments and issues that could potentially escalate into a crisis. Early identification of such issues allows organizations to analyze and strategize their response.
In terms of communication, detection of potential crises allows organizations to communicate the risks with the stakeholders, thus preparing them for worst-case scenarios and reflecting a sense of control and competence.
Preparing for a potential crisis
Preparing for a potential crisis can only go to a certain extent, due to the unpredictable nature of many crises, which means that organizations can only identify and plan for a limited number of specific scenarios.
However, planning and preparation do not need to be related to specific scenarios.
There are many general steps and actions that organizations can take to prepare to respond to a potential crisis.
We will discuss some of these steps in greater detail further in this article — but it starts with the following actions:
- forming a response team
- designating a spokesperson
- ensuring an effective communication network among employees (complete with reliable technology, readily available contact information, multiple means of contact, etc.)
- formulating procedures and guidelines
- providing relevant training (communication skills, crisis management) for relevant individuals.
Stage #2: Crisis response phase
In this stage, a crisis impacting an organization is already unfolding, and the organization has to respond to the events.
The collective body of experience of organizations responding to crises has resulted in the formulation of three universally accepted principles of crisis communication:
- be quick
- be accurate
- be consistent
- (the fourth principle — avoid saying “no comment” — is exclusively related to public crisis communication, and therefore will not be further considered in this article).
While we will discuss these three principles individually in the “best practices” section of the article, author David Sturges suggests that perhaps even more important than how we communicate is what we communicate throughout the lifecycle of a crisis.
Sturges defines three focus areas based on the strategic focus of the communicated content.
These areas are:
- Instructing information
- Adjusting information
- Internalizing information
Sturges states that the safety of those affected is the first priority in a crisis. In order to protect themselves, organizations must protect their stakeholders. Otherwise, they will face an additional crisis by showing a lack of care for those affected.
Instructing information informs the people impacted by the crisis (employees, in this case) how they should act. This type of information lets employees know how to protect their physical wellbeing (and/or, in general, how to best navigate the crisis at hand).
According to Sturges, instructing information should be distributed first, as soon as the crisis emerges and the response team has enough situational awareness to formulate its message. Instructing information should be accurate, precise, clear, and actionable.
As the crisis continues and its immediate effects subside, the focus of communication can be shifted from addressing the crisis itself to addressing its implication.
In essence, adjusting information serves to inform people how to psychologically cope with the crisis.
This type of communication usually involves expressions of sympathy and announcements of any corrective actions to be taken to prevent the crisis from reoccurring.
As the initial impact of the crisis subsides, the communication focus can once again shift.
With the first priority of the physical and mental well-being of the stakeholders already addressed, organizations can begin to protect and rebuild the reputation of the organization itself.
Internalizing information is the information we use to formulate our subjective image of an organization.
As there are countless strategies and approaches to reputation management, we will not go further into the specific contents of internalizing information.
However, we will note that, in the context of internal communication, internalizing information should be aimed at restoring and reinforcing stability and the trust of employees towards the organization.
Stage #3: Post-crisis communication
Communication should not cease once a crisis is considered resolved, as its consequences can linger long after its conclusion.
Post-crisis communication represents an extension of previous communication activities coupled with the lessons learned from the crisis.
Its primary aim is to manage the reactions of different stakeholders.
As an organization exits the period of crisis and attempts to revert to its usual operations, employees will want to know the following:
- when will things go back to normal,
- what will the normal look like,
- how has the crisis impacted the organization, and
- what steps will the organization take to prevent the crisis from happening again.
Post-crisis communication is primarily concerned with reputation management.
10 best practices for effective internal crisis communication
Now that we have laid down the basic theoretical framework, we can examine the tried and tested practices that will set your crisis communication efforts on a healthy foundation.
These actions and principles span all stages of crisis management, from preparing for a potential crisis and all the way to reflecting on it.
1. Have a plan
All organizations should take steps to prepare for an eventual crisis to avoid wasting precious time on figuring out operational matters in the midst of high turbulence.
A fundamental plan for responding to a potential crisis should include the following:
- Response team: defining the key individuals responsible for managing crisis communication. Team members will not only be tasked with internal and external communication, but also information gathering, coordination, decision-making, and the formulation of messages. Ideally, a response team should involve or have a direct line of communication with representatives of upper management.
- Designated spokesperson(s): even though crisis communication will likely be carried out by multiple individuals, it is important to designate a team member who will serve as the primary spokesperson who employees can contact for reliable information. In internal communication, this role will help minimize fears and confusion.
- Procedures and mechanisms: this is the fundamental set of activities supposed to take place once a crisis occurs — who needs to be informed first, what are the decision-making mechanisms, the chronology of procedural steps, etc. Additionally, response teams can outline a basic communication plan for a crisis situation.
- Training: relevant members of the response team can be trained to improve their communication skills. While they are particularly important for public relations, communication skills will also play a role in employee interactions. Furthermore, training in crisis management is highly recommendable as well.
2. Sort out your communication channels
When a crisis strikes, it is crucial to reach all employees with relevant information. In order to achieve this, organizations need to focus on two crucial areas:
- Technology: installing and maintaining the communication infrastructure that enables timely and efficient distribution of information and direct contact with employees. This infrastructure can include an internal website, team chat apps and other team communication tools, on-site and mobile communication tools, etc.
- Communication channels: a comprehensive set of channels for information distribution and direct communication. Organizations need to maintain up-to-date contact information of their employees and have multiple means of contacting the employees (e.g. personal phone number, e-mail address, social media profiles, etc.). Gathering and maintaining employee information is simple with modern tools. With Pumble, users can simply fill out their personal profiles with various contact information that can be easily accessed by Pumble administrators.
3. Avoid silence
Organizations need to address the crisis as soon as it emerges. Even if the situation isn’t clear yet and we don’t have all the facts, we should at least communicate that we are aware of the situation and gathering information. Silence indicates passivity and opens up space for others to control the narrative. Furthermore, employees will expect relevant information from the organization, and notice their absence. Failing to respond to an ongoing crisis will have a negative impact on the organization’s reputation among its stakeholders, including the employees.
4. Act fast
As soon as the crisis is identified, the response team needs to start gathering information and formulating a response. It is crucial to acknowledge the crisis and provide reliable information as soon as possible. Additionally, if the organization manages to be the initial source of information related to the crisis before the media, the reputational damage will be much lesser — both in the eyes of the public and of the organization’s employees.
5. Don’t censor
While there is great disagreement among communication and HR professionals on whether organizations should allow their employees to communicate with the media during a crisis, everyone agrees that it is futile to try and prevent employees from addressing the crisis in their private networks (both physical and virtual). Rather than attempting to moderate or censor employee communication, organizations should provide them with accurate information and relevant messages to enable them to adequately discuss the crisis.
6. Stick to the facts
Crises are a time of uncertainty, and communication efforts should be aimed at clearing it away rather than exacerbating it. When communicating with its employees, as well as the public, organizations should stick with verified facts and avoid ambiguity and speculation. Aside from potentially having great consequences for those affected by the crisis, inaccuracy damages an organization’s credibility, which can have far-reaching consequences on the employees.
7. Be consistent
In practical terms, crisis communication is conducted by multiple actors communicating with multiple audiences. It is crucial that the messages shared in the totality of crisis communication are consistent in tone and content. Inconsistency breeds confusion and creates an impression of incompetence. Organizations need to ensure the necessary degree of coordination between different communicators so that they all have the same information and are aligned on the message.
8. Show support
Employees caught up in an organizational crisis will most likely be confused and concerned about their future. Organizations need to identify and understand employee concerns, show compassion, and provide support through the process. This involves a number of activities, from providing operational (for instance, through the pandemic-induced shift to remote work), material, or psychological support, and all the way to addressing job safety concerns and providing a plan for the future. Crises find employees at their most delicate state, which makes it all the more important for organizations to respond to the needs of employees with empathy.
9. Enable feedback
As we have already established, the key objective of internal crisis communication is restoring trust in the organization. Two-way communication is the foundation of a trustful relationship, and this does not simply stop in a crisis situation. Organizations need to install open communication channels for feedback, allowing employees to voice their concerns, ask questions, comment on the process and provide suggestions. Furthermore, organizations should actively seek feedback through anonymous polls and other safe channels that allow employees to speak frankly without fear of retribution.
As much as it is important to have a plan, it is just as crucial to analyze its effectiveness and its execution. Once a crisis has passed, organizations need to take a good look at their response, identify what has worked and what hasn’t, and then try to come up with improvements. Assessment of the success of a crisis communication plan should include employee feedback — evaluating their degree of satisfaction with various aspects of the communication.
Conclusion: Crisis communication should be rooted in preparation and fueled by compassion
The importance of effective internal communication grows in times of crisis. Due to the disruptive nature of a crisis, employees will be desperate for information, guidance, and support. Even before they are affected by a crisis, organizations need to install the basic mechanisms and designate key personnel for such an eventuality. While physical safety is always the primary concern, compassion and empathy need to be the focus of internal communication through turbulent times.
We hope this article will help you prepare to respond to unforeseen circumstances and ensure the highest degree of stability through unstable times.