The biggest blind spot in crisis communications

Read enough crisis communications plans and you’ll see a host of contingencies for communicating with journalists, lawmakers, shareholders and customers. You’ll also see a variety of templated news releases, dark websites and proposed hashtags. Rarely, however, will you see any strategies and tactics directed at one of the most important audiences in any crisis: the employees who work for the organization at the center of the incident.

Why are employees so often overlooked? Maybe it’s because communicating with them is a routine matter at most organizations. Maybe it’s because employee communications lacks the glamor of media relations and executive communications. Or maybe it’s because leadership assumes employees are incapable of articulating the company’s key messages or advocating the organization’s position with others.

Whatever the reason, ignoring employees misses an opportunity to inform possibly the most credible spokespeople in any organization. According to Fleishman Hillard Fishburn, the general public trusts employees more than a company’s leadership.

In other words, those casual conversations at youth soccer games or in the produce section of the local grocery store can be more effective in demonstrating an organization’s commitment to responsible behavior in a crisis than the finely crafted and legally reviewed statements delivered at news conferences.

Build credibility with employees early and often

The time to cultivate employees as a valuable and trusted source of information is long before the crisis strikes. It begins with an ongoing employee communications plan on matters ranging from the mundane, such as the annual vacation schedule, to an organization’s mission and values.

Too many employee communications programs are short on candor and long on corporate speak. Effective employee communications requires a commitment to timely and truthful information, not only in fact but in perspective. When they feel entrusted with the truth, employees can become powerfully credible spokespersons for their employers.

No one understands the value of employee communications more than Starbucks. Take, for example, the company’s response when two black men were arrested at one of its stores in Philadelphia. While waiting for a person they planned to meet, one of the men asked to use the restroom and was told that it was only for paying customers. The two men were then approached by the store manager and asked if they wanted to order drinks. After they declined, the manager called 911 and the men were arrested by Philadelphia police for trespassing.

Hunkering down is not a crisis communications strategy

Starbucks could have easily issued a statement that the action of its store manager didn’t represent the values of the company, sent a one-pager to employees describing company policy and hunkered down amid the wave of criticism. This is a common practice, especially among leaders who believe their companies are too big to fail.

Instead, Starbucks closed approximately 8,000 stores nationwide for one afternoon so 175,000 employees could participate in racial bias training. It’s not realistic to expect Starbucks employee to shed biases as the result of a single, four-hour meeting. That’s why the training session was the first in a series on racial bias and other topics.

Employee communications is a marathon, not a sprint

The best crisis plans envision informing and listening to employees on a continuous basis, recognizing effective communications is a two-way and ongoing process. This, of course, makes some executives uncomfortable. They often want to limit the quantity and depth of information shared with employees in crisis situations, saying it’s not realistic to transform frontline employees into trained communicators.

If, however, employees – arguably the most credible individuals in any organization – can’t relate to their employer’s key messages, and as a result trust that their leadership is responding to the crisis in a responsible manner, then there’s little chance external audiences can be persuaded, too.

A former reporter and editor for two Pulitzer-Prize-winning newspapers, Jeff Worden, APR, is the

Jeff Worden

Pittsburgh member of the PRConsultants Group. Worden, a former public relations executive for two Fortune 500 companies, has more than 20 years of experience in issues management, media training and crisis communications. Incidents have included: environmental spills, releases and remediations; grand jury investigations; litigation; sudden or unexpected changes in management; plant closings; workplace fatalities; and investigative journalism.