Is your communication strategy geared up to cope in an emergency?

Communicating emergency news to staff is vital for gaining their trust. Getting it wrong can impact badly on credibility, so the key lies in prior planning. Communications must also be legally compliant, says Victoria Furness

Article in full

Communicating with staff during an emergency situation will always be tricky, but it is vital to get this right to gain employee trust in the short and long term. “Get it wrong and your organisation’s credibility could be permanently scarred,” warns Nick Wright, director at communications consultancy Fishburn Hedges.

The 5,700 staff at retail firm Allders, for example, were left wondering whether they had lost their pension rights and jobs when the firm went into administration earlier this year. So what can organisations do to make sure that they communicate clearly and accurately to staff during an emergency situation? “The key to effective and early communication lies in prior planning. This means mapping key employee segments, understanding their issues and concerns, and confirming how best to reach them rapidly with news and information,” adds Wright. Employers must also ensure that their communications strategy is legally compliant.

James Carmody, solicitor at Sprecher Grier & Halberstam, explains: “Make sure that employee contact information is only accessible by certain, responsible employees in a company.” Similarly, understanding the regulatory framework is crucial. Stock market rules, for example, stipulate when organisations can make announcements that might affect their share price. One option is to coincide this type of announcement with another occasion, such as the firm’s annual results. Jenny Davenport, director at consultancy People in Business, says: “This makes the logistics easier and means that the communications challenge is only about how you communicate the information.” Employers should also aim to communicate with staff – even if it is only a brief statement – as near to the time of the emergency as possible.

Most people are sceptical of spin, so it is vital that employees hear what is going on from their own organisation, rather than the media. “It is important employees feel the company is prepared and in control as much as is feasibly possible,” argues Helena Memory, founding partner of communications consultancy Hedron. This often means employers working against the clock to get their message out to staff, especially if they are located in geographically disparate locations, work shift patterns or are absent.

“Email has hugely helped [with logistics]. Before it was more complicated because [organisations] needed to have in place dedicated fax numbers and assign employees the role of distributing these,” says People in Business’ Davenport. However, modern communication methods, such as emailing to home accounts or texting, are not always the right answer; The Accident Group, for instance, is more likely to go down in history as the company that sacked its workers via text message than for anything it achieved during the time it was operational. Once the announcement is in the open, employers must be prepared to answer employees’ questions and have helplines ready to field enquiries.

Even if all questions cannot be answered at the time, it is critical to answer them as soon as possible to let employees know their concerns are being considered. Contingency planning should be part of a wider ongoing communications strategy. “If you have a high level of trust and goodwill, then in an emergency situation you will receive a better response from your employees. So at all times, aim to build open, honest and credible relationships with employees,” says Hedron’s Memory.

Ultimately, how an organisation communicates with staff during an unexpected or unprecedented situation can determine its future reputation and even its success.

Top tips

Make sure the message you give out indicates that you are aware of people’s concerns, but do not make promises you cannot keep.

Do not stop communicating after the event as people can be in shock the first time they hear the news.

Remember that your line managers, many of whom will be on the frontline ensuring that organisational performance is maintained and alleviating employees’ concerns, will also be wondering about the effect on their own position.