How can internal communication help a company to fly through a period of turbulence? Gloria Lombardi speaks with author and adviser Paul Barton.
“When your organisation is facing the worst, you need to be at your best.” Paul Barton
A crisis can hit any company. Especially in an increasingly volatile world. And, at times of crises most large companies prioritise their public image. Often they direct all their communication efforts externally, only. However, the truth is that employees are just as important as external audiences. As Paul Barton puts it: “Organisations need the full support of their staff to recover from a crisis as fully and as quickly as possible.”
Barton (pictured right) is the author of “Maximizing Internal Communications” and founder of Paul Barton Communications. He has studied and advised companies for more than two decades to help them communicate effectively. Over the years, he has also developed a strong interest and knowledge on crisis communications.
I wanted to discuss with him the role of internal communication in a time of crisis. In this interview, Barton shares his view on the best strategies to deploy, the power of employee advocacy, new digital channels and staff policies. Plus, the rise of the ‘content expert’.
Gloria Lombardi: Internal Communication is vital during a crisis. But, why it is so critical to emphasise its role?
Paul Barton: Employee communications are at the heart of every company’s success. Most certainly, they stay at the heart of any crisis recovery. Internal Communication is the little strand that holds everybody together when everything else seems to be falling apart. Just as Richard Branson has built his Virgin Group brand from the inside out, crisis are best solved that way.
But, in the rush and panic of a crisis it is easy to take staff for granted. That can be a costly mistake. Employees are the ones who get the work done. They are the people who will determine how quickly and fully you recover. And, employees are the face of the brand to customers.
GL: What attributes define good internal communication in a crisis?
PB: I talk about the 3Ps of Predict, Prepare and Practice.
Any company should try to predict the crisis scenarios that are likely to happen to them. I suggest coming up with a list of five scenarios, at least. The organisation will be able to adapt more quickly and appropriately to those situations if they arise. This is true even if the crisis turns out to be something closely related but different. Obviously, everything cannot be predicted. Yet, statistics show that about two-thirds of crises are foreseeable if the company does their work in advance.
Prepare is about having the necessary information pre-gathered and processes pre-determined. It includes the definition of roles and responsibilities, an emergency notification system, an initial employee template update, the communication channels, and the policy for staff. Also, a post-crisis evaluation is important for learning what could be improved in future. An organisation needs those resources in advance – they cannot wait when a crisis hits to figure them out. There is simply too much happening too fast.
But, where I see many companies failing is the practice. Perhaps, the 3Ps model should say, ‘Practice, Practice, Practice’. It is the best way to be prepared for a crisis. Practising helps an organisation to uncover communications that need to be changed and revised. It’s practice and experience that will help a team to perform well in a difficult situation.
GL: How should an organisation approach the frequency of internal communications in a crisis?
PB: Employees need to see Internal Communication as a trusted and credible source for information. The function definitely has to communicate early and often. They have to provide staff with clear and timely insights, and consistent messages just like they do in any other form of employee communication. But, they also need to consider that everything gets amplified in a crisis – while all the basic rules are still in play, they get intensified.
GL: Sometimes employees become aware of a crisis situation involving their company through the news and social media rather their own organisation first. That can create additional confusion during an already difficult time.
PB: Yes, it has happened, and it happens often. There is an overlap between internal and external communications. The exchanges that employees have with customers, family, friends and neighbours, are de facto external communications. And, the messages that a company gives outside can actually come back with an overlay to employee voice.
The last thing a company wants is having staff who are uninformed and telling customers that they do not know what is going on. So, it is important to ensure that messages are aligned and to provide accurate information to everyone.
GL: In the digital economy an organisation can use new channels as an opportunity to empower employee advocacy. How should the activity be run during a crisis?
PB: Yes, absolutely. If an organisation treats their employees respectfully and provides them with the right information they can become the best advocates inside and outside of the organisation. They can help the business overcome the worst situations. For example, if there is a crisis on a plant, field workers could be tweeting about it, posting videos, sharing pictures, updates and more. And, letting employees talk about areas that they are experts in can become a more credible source of information than any public relations.
But, I advocate that long before a crisis happens, any company creates a detailed and open policy. That document states how employees should use social media as well as the other communication channels.
Unfortunately, many policies are not kept up to date. They were developed a long time ago. It was well before we become aware of all the capabilities that digital, social technology, and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) to work offer. Those policies do not address the new developments in communication. That must change.
GL: You have just made the important remark of “letting employees to talk about” the crisis. They may have extra knowledge about something to actually become the most trusted source of information. Tell me more.
PB: As for any communication, an organisation should not use their own CEO all the time. Clearly, when it is appropriate they most certainly may want to do that.
However, in a crisis it is important to involve the ‘content experts’. Often, they are employees in the middle level who know more about the situation than anyone else. It is a good opportunity to involve them.
In the old days a company would try to funnel everything through the public relations department and one spokesman. In particular, it was mainly through a CEO whose spokesman was by his side briefing him. But, the days when an organisation used to control all those messages, or answers if they ever existed, are gone. Funnelling does not work in the modern era. Everyone has a device and is capable of broadcasting to the world in real time. That is a great chance for the company to find and empower the real experts across the organisation.
GL: Are there differences in the way companies in different geographies and industries encourage employee advocacy?
PB: The most high-tech companies in the United States, California in particular, are well adapted. They allow their employees to defend the organisation on digital media. They understand the opportunity much better than many old manufacturing companies. The latter are still slow when it comes to instilling employee advocacy.
GL: Let’s take a scenario where staff is part or the cause of the crisis. How should an organisation approach the situation?
PB: An honest communication approach is still the best, whether it is internal or external. Employees certainly will watch how leadership responds. The company needs to be open, treat staff like adults, and provide them with timely information. Even if they don’t have all the answers, they still need to get out in front of people and communicate. They simply should say that they may not be able to answer all the questions. But also that they are aware of the situation, working on it and that they will provide more details as soon as they have it. And, action has to follow. The organisation needs to keep staff updated. For example, they can set up pop-up notifications on the appropriate channels and times for employees to see depending on the type of crisis.
Rumours are created for a specific reason: they fill in the information void. If an organisation does not tell staff what is going on, they will make up their own story. And, it is very unlikely that the latter will be similar to the one the company would like to tell!