From BP to Kenneth Cole to Mattel, there is no lack of disasters that we, as communications professionals, can analyze and learn from. These examples add to the growing body of guides on how to survive a corporate crisis played out in social media.
Each case prescribes the best practices we know are elemental in handling a tough situation: Take ownership, use all channels to share and reiterate key messages, actively engage with customers, reply to critics quickly and factually, explain what you are doing to resolve the situation, and be transparent.
In all these cases however, one thing is curiously missing. No one ever talks about the forgotten stakeholders: Employees.
Across the company spectrum, from rank-and-file staff to even senior executives, very few crisis communications plans are designed to keep employees top-of-mind.
Overlooking employees is never deliberate. They are not the most immediate threat – Facebook posts and withering tweets are what cause the real ripples. And as in all crises, the tendency is to confine a grim situation to a group tasked with resolving it rather than spreading it more broadly across the organization. In most cases a one-off email confirming the situation and the steps the company is doing is considered good enough.
This is unfortunate for three reasons:
Employees can act as brand advocates on their own social networks.
If we believe that social media is not just one department’s job but the entire company’s, it makes sense to enlist employees’ help in stanching a crisis.
It requires that, as with external stakeholders, they should be updated on key developments as they unfold, not learn about it online.
This raises the sticky question: What if my company/client restricts employee access to social platforms?
What companies need to consider is that banning Facebook in the workplace does not prevent an employee from going on it on a home computer or smart phone. Information will be shared, one way or another. It makes more sense to keep messages clear, consistent and timely, no matter what the company policy is about social media activity.
Putting internal crisis communications on the back burner stokes dissatisfaction.
Make no mistake about it, employees are watching just as avidly as outsiders – if not more – as their company’s crisis plays out in public.
The implications for labor-related crises are especially sobering. A July crisis preparedness study conducted globally by Burson-Marsteller and Penn Schoen Berland found that the top crisis encountered by 31 per cent of respondents were controversial company layoffs.
If a firm had disgruntled employees to start with, the absence of information can be perceived as a lack of respect for staff, not exactly the right incentive for them to rally around the company in its time of need. In fact it could be the cue for them to initiate action that could worsen the situation.
Management, to use a much-abused word, has to be aligned.
Nobody wants to be the last to know. Containing the crisis to a group only demoralizes those in positions of responsibility and accountability when they read about it in their Twitter feed.
Bosses influence their direct reports. Engaging the former at the outset, even though they don’t play a direct role in solving the crisis, puts the onus on them to be part of the solution. Their job is equally important: To positively influence their direct reports and fill in the gaps where emails can’t. The company is asking them to step up as leaders, and very few will ignore the call to measure up to that expectation.
Finally there is no better opportunity than a crisis to close the gap between what a company claims to be and what it truly is. In your company branding, do you profess to be the employer of choice? Do you claim to put staff above all else? Do you say your employees are empowered? If there had been any lingering cynicism before, now is the time to show that your positioning is not just slick verbiage, but truth.
Editor’s note: Want to learn more from Alicia? She has excellent crisis communications lessons to share with us in next week’s webinar, Turning a Crisis into a PR Coup. In 2009, Alicia led the marketing for a global professional services firm when a strike in the New Zealand office escalated to protests organized on social media. You’ll learn how her team led the company, unfamiliar and untrusting of social media, through the crisis communications effort. She’ll share the the do’s and don’ts of online crisis communications, and how to find that silver lining in your own situation. Thursday, September 8, 11 am Central. ($50) Register here.
Alicia Kan advises companies in Asia and the US about digital communications and marketing. She will be sharing an international crisis communications case study driven by social media on September 8th.