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The Forgotten Stakeholder In Crisis Communication

By: Guest | September 1, 2011 | 
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Today’s guest post is written by Alicia Kan.  She is presenting next week’s Spin Sucks Pro webinar on crisis communications. You’ll find more information below.

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

 

 

 

 

 

34 comments
aliciakan
aliciakan

@mikepilarz Absolutely true that we're all media outlets now. Thanks for the shout-out!

MSchechter
MSchechter

Ok, before I say anything, I need to specify that I am not a PR person and have no PR experience. I encourage you to tell me why what I am about to say is dead wrong. As I read your post, especially the second paragraph, I wanted to make sure my co-workers and employees were aware and informed, but NOT involved. Here is why:

As a manager, when you say: "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." What I hear is "is figure out what happened, get everyone who needs to communicate about it aligned and do what is needed to move past the incident while staying on message."

When it comes to having multiple people sharing that message the challenges grow. To non-PR folks, crisis messaging struggles to sound genuine when it is coming from one person, start having multiple people telling the exact same story and the words really ring false. Also, the deeper you go into an organization, the more casual things become. "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." can quickly become "Admit you blew it, say that everywhere, say it often."

I'm not telling you I think that last tact is necessarily a bad one when done right, but more often than not, the messaging tends to take on a corporate speak tone. And when pros struggle to deliver it, how do you think the average employee will fare?

There are benefits to going wide, but there are also some serious risks unless it is the kind of business where their definition of "Take Ownership" sounds a lot more like "Admit you screwed up" and in those cases, I agree, there can be a lot of value to additional voices.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

Alicia, I cannot wait for your webinar next week! Very excited to hear about your experience and how you can take all of the practice and implement it into action. I also hope you'll be wearing fabulous shoes...even though we won't be able to see them.

ExtremelyAvg
ExtremelyAvg

I don't have any experience in crisis management, am a generally bitter person, and look at the world through snark colored glasses, but I would like to put my two cents worth in.

I think that most senior management are older, less likely to fully understand social media, probably generally stupid with regards to computers and such, and the skill set that let them climb to their vaulted position 20 years ago, is no longer pertinent. (Note: I really meant to just say generally stupid, but that seemed mean.)

They are people who are control freaks. It is this driving dedication to seeing things through, which helped their company grow when they were middle management, and thus led them to their current positions. They are loathe to share with their lesser, albeit smarter, employees, because they think they are still in touch. They aren't. If they were, it is likely they wouldn't have a crisis to manage.

Of course, there are issues like the BP oil spill that need to be managed, and would have happened anyway, because they trusted their contractor running the platform. But the Groupon Ad crisis was just a horrific blunder that could have only been made by stupid people.

So I say develop a plan, using the very good advice giving in the blog, and then grotesquely overcharge the idiots who got their company in the mess in the first place. But that is just me...and I am bitter.

alexklevine
alexklevine

Agreed! I have friends at Groupon at they were put in really uncomfortable situations with friends and family due to the way Groupon handled their Super Bowl Ad crises (and their lack of preparedness for it, even though they admitted their ads were risky and airing one vaguely about exploiting Tibet very shortly after opening offices in China). Their employees could have been great allies, instead employees were put in a rough situation that execs saw coming.

RickRice
RickRice

Excellent points! Employees are seen as a secondary, or lower, audience during a crisis and, all too often, in other situations. Frankly I think they are a critical group for all of an organization's messages. Good luck with the webinar.

KenMueller
KenMueller

I see this all the time. Fear. The argument that I hear all the time is: But I don't trust my employees!

My response to that is: Well, who hired them?

That shuts them up pretty fast. We just need to make sure we are hiring the correct people, people that we trust. If we don't trust our employees, we're doing something wrong. We can't view our employees as commodities. They are people. People that we can trust.

EmmaofCEM
EmmaofCEM

I don't get why some companies even bother blocking Facebook anymore. You're absolutely right about the smart phones - blocking social networking sites is about as effective as prohibition, methinks.

aliciakan
aliciakan

@MSchechter Appreciate your reading and taking the time to comment! The second paragraph is targeted at communications professionals and outlines best practice for handling a crisis. Definitely employees shouldn't be parroting a statement that can sound contrived -- we hear enough of those!

In the case study I will present next week, among other measures the global company supplied FAQs to their leadership and encouraged them to talk to their teams, in their own words, in their own language. The message was the same but the choice of words and how it was expressed differed from employee to employee.

MSchechter
MSchechter

Comment Cliffs Notes: To make this a lot shorter, I guess what I'm asking is, does the idea of traditional crisis messaging need to change if you intend to do atypical crisis communicating.

aliciakan
aliciakan

If not for your invitation, it wouldn't happen! Thanks so much for asking me to present.

aliciakan
aliciakan

@ExtremelyAvg Appreciate the candor! I have to say that after a crisis, senior management do develop a new appreciation for digital. Too bad it takes a crisis to get them there.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@alexklevine How are your friends at Groupon doing with the violation of the quiet period while they prep for their IPO?

aliciakan
aliciakan

@RickRice Thanks for the kind words. They are a critical group indeed and companies don't realize they are their secret weapon.

aliciakan
aliciakan

@KenMueller It's a two-way street. Sometimes companies that are afraid to trust their employees know that the platform upon which that trust should be anchored is shaky.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@EmmaofCEM I don't understand it, either. But LOTS of CIOs and IT departments don't want any work computers on the web at all, let alone on the social networks.

Lisa Gerber
Lisa Gerber

@EmmaofCEM When you block something, you only aggravate the situation.

I always compare US drinking laws to those in Europe. They don't have teen binge drinking problems there because they don't forbid it like we do here.

It accomplishes the opposite!

MSchechter
MSchechter

@aliciakan Thanks for the informative response. So it is more about creating a conversational frame these days than it is a corporate message?

SteveLevine1
SteveLevine1

@aliciakan complements like that (referring to moi as a star) will you get you everywhere LOL seriously, thank you

aliciakan
aliciakan

There should still be a key message to be conveyed, e.g. 'Product safety is our utmost priority.' How it is said however, differs from say the CEO telling shareholders or a factory supervisor advising a vendor. The circumstances in which to communicate can change, the underlying message should not. A conversational framework is a good tool to use, as long as it's not scripted.