December 11, 2023
What Is Crisis Communication? A Best Practices Guide for Leaders
In today’s dynamic business world, all leaders will inevitably face a crisis – or a series of them – at some point in their tenure. Whether it’s big issues or small disruptions, how leaders respond to the situation makes all the difference in securing the company’s reputation and maintaining the confidence and trust of employees.
What Is Crisis Communication?
Crisis communication is the strategy an organization deploys to respond to any difficult issue or business disruption that challenges the company’s reputation or threatens to break down employee trust and confidence in an organization.
What Kinds of Crisis Scenarios Do Companies Face?
For large corporations, a crisis can easily become a very public event, such as when employees treat customers poorly in public settings. For instance, airlines often see poor decision making erupt into public relations scandals. One vivid example is a 2017 United Airlines case in which passenger David Dao was forcibly removed from an airplane that was overbooked. The situation was recorded on video, poorly communicated about by leadership, and quickly became big news.
In other situations, the crisis is universal and impacts much of society, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and other geo-political issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Ukraine.
Below are some other examples of the types of crises many companies face:
- Security threats: This could involve cyber-security attacks that compromise employee or customer data, violence in the workplace that harms the well-being of employees, thefts, and other similar violations of company security policies.
- Employee accidents: This could involve employee injuries on the job, such as factory workers injured by faulty equipment, or company truck drivers involved in serious highway product spills or accidents. Companies with poor overall safety records and an inability to protect their employees’ well-being suffer from public scrutiny and can face sanctions from government authorities.
- Weather or environmental issues: Natural disasters, such as floods, fires, and tornadoes can cause major disruptions to company operations, as can environmental-related accidents, chemical spills, or explosions. The brand reputation can be impacted for years following the incidents, especially in cases where companies are found to be in violation of safety guidelines.
- Employee ethics scandals: Companies sometimes come under scrutiny because top leadership or employees demonstrate poor judgment in any number of ways. Paying bribes to earn contracts, sexually harassing employees, or violating contracts. Often company leadership comes under fire if bad patterns of behavior are either ignored or even encouraged, making it ever more important for top leaders to have strict codes of conduct and consistent communication on the company’s values and ways of operating.
- Societal concerns: Often major geopolitical issues can become a crisis for employees struggling to make sense of disturbing news. During the COVID-19 crisis, many employees were feeling unsettled, stressed and overworked due to family, personal, and health challenges. More recently, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis led to emotional distress for many employees as they watched the conflict escalate.The impact was most acute for employees with friends, relatives, and colleagues in the region, but was also shown to impact a large number of employees with no direct ties to the Middle East. These types of world crises call for direct communication from leaders to ensure that employees know their leaders care about their overall emotional well-being and want to be a source of support.
- Product recalls: Particularly for food and other consumer product companies, company leaders need to take very proactive measures to communicate when their products pose a threat of harm to consumers.
- Employee retention issues: When companies see a large number of employees leaving for new opportunities, or when a company institutes a wide-scale layoff of personnel, a crisis of confidence can emerge among the employees who remain. Proactive communication is required to help employees understand the context behind the issue and the path forward for the organization, which helps to regain employee confidence and trust.
Why Is Crisis Communication Important?
What we’ve learned from decades of working with hundreds of organizations in crisis can be boiled down to this: Effective communication makes a huge difference in managing through a crisis.
Too often, leaders fail in one of two key ways:
- They avoid communication almost completely or communicate very little, hoping a lack of detail or clarity will downplay a crisis.
- They communicate poorly and without a sense of humanity and empathy for employees and their concerns.
As we’ve worked on issues and crisis communication, we’ve identified key reasons why communicating well really matters, including the following:
Employees want to hear from their leaders in times of crisis.
When employees struggle to process difficult news, they look to their leaders to respond in some way – both from the top of their organizations as well as from their own manager. It can be difficult to find the exact right words, but saying nothing communicates something as well – and can be seen as insensitive.
For example, confidence in senior leadership, alignment with company culture, and overall employee engagement increased 4 to 6 times for organizations that delivered effective communication on the Middle East conflict coupled with manager outreach, according to recent research by The Harris Poll for The Grossman Group.
Employees want to feel that their leaders care about them and understand their concerns.
Here’s where a famous quote from leadership guru Simon Sinek really rings true: “Leadership is not about being in charge. It’s about taking care of those in your charge.” Leaders need to set a tone from the top and managers should follow by demonstrating that they are concerned about the emotional well-being of those impacted by the crisis.
When company operations are impacted and/or people are affected personally by a crisis, leaders should go even further to engage employees with critical updates and a determined focus on their well-being.
However, we’ve found that leaders often say they don’t want to speak out on an issue such as the Middle East conflict because they see it as a “political issue.”
In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, more than half of employees surveyed by The Harris Poll and The Grossman Group reported being affected by the conflict. That’s almost 10 times what you might expect from population numbers and 5 to 6 times what you might expect from those who said they were directly impacted by the conflict.
The important takeaway from this finding is that the better screen for employers to use when deciding whether to communicate is understanding the likelihood that employees are affected beyond company operations.
Not communicating out of a perception that a message may be considered political often leads leaders to be tone-deaf to the needs and well-being of employees at a time when employees look to their leaders to respond in some way.
Leaders who prioritize listening actively to employees during a crisis create stronger, more committed, and more resilient teams.
When leaders take the time to listen and show they care, employees are more likely to feel part of an inclusive team that welcomes their unique experiences and provides a safe place to share their perspectives openly. Part of listening actively can involve a number of important approaches from leaders and managers, including:
- Reaching out directly to employees who you think might be most impacted by a crisis. This gives the employees an important opportunity for dialogue.
- Ask employees in crisis a simple question: "How can I be most helpful to you right now?"
- Connect employees in crisis to the right resources for additional support by providing contacts in human resources or other helpful support systems within the company.
Critical Components of Effective Crisis Communication
The Grossman Group and Harris Poll recently asked internal communicators what essential elements they think company communication during a crisis should contain. The top three components identified were concern, empathy, and clarity.
Here’s how we defined best practices for those top three components:
- Concern: The communication addresses the safety and well-being of employees, either due to operational impact and/or because they are affected personally by the issue. Using this key screen is important, given the number of issues that organizations face each day.
- Empathy: Sets the right tone and shows empathy toward employees’ challenges. It is human in its language and approach and creates an environment where employees feel valued and respected.
- Clarity: Communicates the organization’s position on the crisis in a focused and purposeful way and consistently across leadership and management ranks.
The other components identified (in order of ranked importance) include: timeliness, authenticity, unity, company reassurance, flexibility, belonging, purpose alignment, ongoing dialogue, and employee involvement. You can get more detail on those components from our Quick Guide: Critical Components of Internal Communications When Issues Arise.
When Should Leaders Address a Crisis Internally?
Beyond looking at just how concerned or impacted employees are by a particular issue as we discussed above, a key answer to the question of when to communicate is simple: crisis communication should be handled in a very timely manner. Especially given the short turnaround with social media, news of a critical challenge inside an organization can be released very quickly, particularly if it was egregious enough to impact a significant number of employees.
Organizations often stumble when they wait too long to communicate. Sometimes, it can be hard to know what to say as a situation is evolving, but saying nothing in those cases can cause an even worse situation.
Here’s our best practice rule of thumb for leaders to communicate in a timely and efficient manner even when the information is scarce: don’t wait to communicate until you have all the answers. By then, it will be too late. If you wait, someone is going to speak on your behalf and fill the information vacuum, whether the information is right or wrong.
We advise leaders to be timely and communicate what you know, when you know it, and also tell employees what you’re still working on figuring out.
Silence inside organizations hurts employee confidence and engagement and it has major implications for leaders when future issues arise. Find out more in this free white paper: Big Miss: Far Too Many Organizations Are Silent About the Israeli‑Palestinian Conflict.
Other Important Best Practices in Crisis Communication
In addition to knowing when to address crisis, it’s important to follow core best practices to ensure your communications are effective. Here are six crisis communication best practices to keep in mind:
1. Increase manager communication effectiveness.
Provide training for leaders so they understand how to approach employees, what key messages need to be delivered, and where to point employees for additional support. Provide them with toolkits that include key messages, frequently asked questions with suggested answers, fact sheets about what the company is doing, tips for having discussions with their people about a specific crisis and surfacing questions, etc.
The importance of front-line manager communication is one of the key findings from a recent poll The Grossman Group conducted with The Harris Poll about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. The poll found that when it comes to communicating about issues, the more communication employees received, the better they felt about their employer and the company culture. The impact was the strongest when an internal statement was coupled with a manager reaching out to check in with employees about how they were doing. You can see more results from that poll here.
2. Develop a comprehensive crisis communication plan.
In times of crisis, it’s tempting to focus on the immediate need to get communication out quickly – and that is important. However, it is also important to have a plan in place – one that ensures you are listening and evolving your messages and tactics as necessary to effectively engage with your people.
It doesn’t have to take long. Just pause long enough to think through your objectives, audience, messages, channels, and how you will measure success. Our Take 5 communication planning tool can help you get started.
Effective crisis communication plans include:
- Explanation of key goals for the plan and the communication
- List of key stakeholders you’ll need to communicate with (should include employees and any other outside organizations that will need to know the news, such as board of directors, contractors, or customers, when appropriate)
- Process for how the communications team will meet and align with leaders about the messages to be distributed
- A plan for how information will be shared (outline of how and when the information will be distributed to key groups)
- A process for how communicators might prepare a list and answers to Frequently Asked Questions from employees
3. Determine the right channels for communication.
Employees get their information in different ways. Some rely on email, others turn to social media channels, and others prefer one-on-one discussions with opportunities for questions and dialogue. A best practice is to provide information through multiple channels so you’re giving employees information in the ways they want to receive it.
4. Provide needed context on the crisis or change.
It’s super important for employees to have the context behind what’s happening inside an organization so they know what’s going on and why.
5. Build in frequent communication follow ups.
One of the biggest mistakes organizations make is issuing statements or other forms of communication after a big change or crisis and then going silent. Regular communication about an ongoing crisis is critical for maintaining transparency and trust. Employees need to feel that leaders aren’t just “checking the box” by distributing a statement and never bothering to revisit the issue.
6. Emphasize self-care when employees are directly impacted by a crisis.
When employees have been personally impacted, it’s important for leaders to provide options for employees to process their emotions. They may need time off or a day to rest. Encourage employees to request what they need and collaborate on what plans might be best to support them.
Final Thoughts: Be a Leader Communicator
We often refer to the best leaders in a crisis as “leader communicators,” change agents who realize that most problems in business today lie in the absence of real communication. They apply this approach in a crisis and every day. When done well, these courageous leaders are able to mitigate crisis, create shared meaning, and move people to action.
Employees don’t expect leaders to be perfect in how they handle a crisis, or to have all the answers. Mostly, they just want them to listen, be human, and show true concern.
Access key research, a white paper, and other resources on how to navigate communications when issues arise at our Internal Communications: Issues Resource Hub today.
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