Communicating inside and out
C4CS® Senior Partner Dianne L. Chase and Managing Partner Oliver S. Schmidt contributed this article to the December 2013 issue of Communication World, which is published by the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), a professional network of about 15,000 business communication professionals in over 80 countries. If you would like to view and download the December 2013 issue of Communication World, please click here. We hope the article is of interest to our readers.
Make sure your crisis response includes these key stakeholders
While every business crisis and corresponding set of affected stakeholders are unique, there are some groups with which organizations must communicate in order to protect their reputation, brand equity and the bottom line during times of crisis. A successful response to a business crisis demands making and communicating far-reaching and emotionally difficult decisions while under pressure and perhaps lacking complete or fully accurate information. To overcome the communication challenges that crises present, management must enable effective communication with three key stakeholders: employees, reporters from traditional news media, and social media users.
Employees especially are often neglected during a business crisis, and as a result, many companies alienate their best advocates—the people who are excellent workers and whose opinions and attitudes have an impact outside the company, through their daily conversations with friends and family, as well as through their social media interactions. Your company’s crisis communication plan should definitely include
an employee communication component. (If your organization doesn’t have a stated crisis communication plan already, then creating one should be a priority.) Processes, responsibilities, channels and recurring training should be determined and a framework established that encompasses employee communication, including the following:
• Make sure senior management understands the importance of two way communication and incorporates employee feedback in its decisions. Employee feedback during a crisis helps
identify the value of messages, helps keep tabs on rumors and false information, highlights employee concerns, and enhances trust. Even questions that seem inconvenient or unimportant should be addressed in order to keep people informed and their morale up. Follow-up messages should take employee opinions into account and provide information about the steps company leadership is taking.
• Communicate first with employees about matters that affect them. Think about it: Wouldn’t you want to know from your own company about a situation that could affect your job? Empower your employees with the facts, and let them function as communication allies, carrying specific messages into the community.
• Designate company spokespersons to address stakeholders with carefully crafted messages. Then consider using employees as informal communicators in times of crisis with official messaging that was developed for various crisis scenarios. Familiarity with communication channels helps prevent and overcome employee uncertainty, and encourages continuous and constructive dialogue.
Organizations that are unprepared to work with traditional news media during a crisis often experience intense media scrutiny and negative coverage that can easily lead to unfavorable stakeholder perceptions and lasting reputational and economic damage. It is the media’s job to report crisis-related news, illuminate relevant issues, influence issue portrayal and propose solutions. While journalists generally seek to report news in an objective, fact-based and balanced manner, today’s media environment is highly competitive, and reporters must generate relevant information fast in order to meet deadlines and stay ahead of
the competition. As you develop or update your crisis communication plan, keep in mind how you work with journalists and other media representatives:
• Be ready when a journalist calls. Because reporters may be unable to wait until the company has gathered, verified and officially communicated crisis-related facts (What happened? Where? When? Why? Who is affected? What are the relevant concerns? What is being done about it?), they may turn to unofficial and less reliable sources. Quickly coordinating the managerial, operational and communication
response to a crisis is critical, but only designated spokespersons should address the media.
• Build long-term relationships with relevant journalists. Mutual familiarity and trust will increase the likelihood of fact-based and non-sensational reporting if a crisis does occur.
• View media interviews and news conferences as valuable opportunities to convey key messages. The reporter functions as a filter through which your carefully crafted messages pass before they reach various stakeholders. In addition to recurring on-camera media training, proper interview preparation includes studying the assigned reporter’s tendencies, previous interviews and interview techniques.
• Closely monitor news coverage, especially during a crisis, so that any false or incomplete information can be identified and corrected right away. Don’t delay following up with reporters even if new information is not available or cannot be shared for legal or other reasons. Keep a media inquiry log to track inquiries (Who inquired? Which outlet? When? Reason for call? etc.) and to streamline processing and follow-up.
Simply put, no company today can afford to ignore what is said online and in social media about its business practices, brands, performance, products and services, and that is even truer during a crisis situation. Employees, customers, competitors, reporters and other stakeholders turn to the Internet and social media to obtain, publish and distribute crisis-related information. As a result, uncensored and potentially damaging content, including audio and video clips, may be published and syndicated across borders in real time, and rumors and false information may remain available on the Internet indefinitely. Be prepared to communicate and engage with a broad range of stakeholders by way of peer-to-peer conversation using various social media. Determine what social media outlets stakeholders are already using, and which channels might be particularly effective in reaching specific groups. In addition, consider the following:
• Establish, communicate and enforce a social media policy that clearly outlines what employees are permitted to do with social media while on company time. Thorough Internet and social media monitoring has to be conducted around the clock as well, and should include issue- and crisis-specific monitoring, with the results shared within the company.
• Listen and respond to stakeholder comments and feedback provided via social media, especially if the information posted is incorrect and potentially damaging. Identify and connect with key online influencers who will share your messages with a large number of individual stakeholders.
• Address and correct any false claims or accusations as soon as possible. Make sure any content pertaining to the crisis that is added by or on behalf of the company is clearly identifiable as such. Because every crisis is different, management must evaluate the crisis response continuously and make adjustments as necessary.
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