Covid-19 has given companies a host of external communications challenges, but internal comms may be just as important—and more fraught. What do you tell employees about how the outbreak is affecting your business, your customers, and your suppliers? When should you be talking, and when should you stay quiet?
We asked crisis communications professionals for advice. “There are great lessons to be learned from how your competitors are communicating,” says consultant Edward Segal, author of Crisis Ahead: 101 Ways to Prepare For and Bounce Back From Disasters, Scandals and Other Emergencies, who has advised more than 500 companies. Here are some of those lessons.
When in doubt, reach out. “Keep communicating,” says Michael Robinson, chairman and chief executive officer of Montgomery Strategies Group. “Communicate even when you don’t know a lot. Make it real and substantive. And keep doing it.” He says consumer-facing businesses are good at this because they engage customers and understand their needs; business-to-business and industrial companies don’t do as well. They seem to be “forced into communications,” Robinson says. “You can tell they’re meeting the minimum standard for disclosure, but they’re certainly not using it as an opportunity to build a relationship.”
Any format is fine. Want to hold a virtual town hall? Great. Regular emails from the chief executive officer? Cool. “The format is not nearly as important as the message and tone,” says Segal. You’re going for simple, caring, honest, transparent, and direct.“Americans have a finely-tuned b.s. meter. They appreciate direct, fact-based honesty, and not a spin operation.”
Look inward. “A lot of companies think only about how they’re communicating outward,” says Dustin York, associate professor of strategic communication at Maryville University. “They may not see it right now, but it’s going to hurt them dramatically when job opportunities return and their turnover rates become incredibly high.”
Look inward (part 2). The messaging to employees should be: We’re here for you, even if you’re not making us money right now. And: We see you, we acknowledge your suffering, we’re here with you, and we want to support you. “Starbucks has done a really great job,” says Jenny Wang, a vice president at public-relations company Kglobal. “With their voluntary leave program, workers still have their health-care premiums covered, so it really shows a commitment to employees that will pay dividends long-term, not just with employee engagement and morale but also customers.”
Failing to acknowledge employees’ struggles “can detach the emotional connection,” says Eric Schiffer, chairman of Reputation Management Consultants. “The smartest companies know not only how to maintain credibility and trust, but also how to elicit warm and positive feelings. It requires a very careful, sensitive, measured, and empathetic approach.”
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