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Internal Communications

5 min read

Hand stoppt umfallende Dominosteine
Hand stoppt umfallende Dominosteine

Internal crisis communication: How to cope with emergencies 

When an accident or a hacking incident takes the company by surprise, there is no time left to develop contingency plans. By following these five steps, you can effectively prepare your internal communication for an emergency.

Jonathan Fasel, Experte fĂĽr PR und Krisenkommunikation

Jonathan Fasel

Communication expert and managing director Fasel & Fasel

If something unforeseen happens, smooth internal corporate communication processes and a clear course of action are needed. Fortunately, crises follow a clear pattern that you can use to guide your internal communication. These five steps increase the chance of successful communication in troubled times.

Step 1: Define a plan for typical crisis situations

With this, you can get started right away: Define a concrete plan before a potential crisis. Written plans for crisis situations are still the exception in internal communication. This is unfortunate, because without preventative action, the crisis can unleash its full force. If no one knows what to do, mistakes will happen that are likely to make the crisis worse.

The plan before the crisis: Important questions

  • What are the typical scenarios for a crisis that could occur in our country?
  • Who is authorised to speak?
  • Who makes decisions in the crisis?
  • Who is part of the crisis team?
  • What channels do we use to communicate in a crisis - and how do we use them?

The crisis plan for internal communication can be a stand-alone document. However, it is better to see it as part of the overarching crisis protocol. If you do not have a plan, start it today. 

Also remember that normal processes do not work in a crisis. After all, IT failures or cyber-attacks are responsible for more than half of business crises. So,there is no purpose in storing the crisis plan on a server. Print it out and have it ready on hand! Also, think about independent communication channels such as an employee app. They will still work even if the company is paralysed, or the power goes out.

Step 2: Communicate the crisis plan internally

At the start of the crisis, make a statement as quickly as possible. And not only to the media and external stakeholders, but also to your team - from the very top and instantly. There are several reasons for this: For example, a crisis always triggers a certain amount of uncertainty in the team. 

Let your CEO - if legally possible - classify the crisis. Do not assign blame. Show ways out of the crisis. Promise clarity and answers as soon as possible. Now is the time for good leadership, for looking ahead. This provides security and peace of mind to your employees. 

As a negative example, consider this case: a company in the financial sector is targeted by the European Union, sends out a statement to the press minutes after it becomes known - and then the CEO keeps the company’s staff in the dark for half a day. Of course, that's not how it works! 

Luck of the draw

A power failure, in the middle of the afternoon in May, caught the processing plant of a Hamburg chemical factory off guard. But the factory was lucky: all five production lines had just been retooled and were at a standstill, the reactor tanks were empty - the damage was minimal. After a good 15 minutes, the power was back on: crisis averted. But just barely: what if chemicals had suddenly reacted because production had stopped? And then the media and the public get wind of it? In such moments, everyone must know what to do. Communication is essential.

You also need to prevent the team from going to the media and the public with different messages. A clear, consistent rule for external communication helps here. Therefore, once again: name the reasons for the crisis and stick to the truth - but not in depth, which could provide the media with further details and prolong the story. 

In practice, this usually means: Use comparable language to that used for the media and customers, concentrate your response on the classification of what this means for the company and the employees Then come quickly to the solution orientation, the way forward - and offer opportunities for follow-up questions (see point 4). 

Very important: Show emotion if there are casualties or deaths, and express honest sympathy. In 2014, a chemical plant exploded near Dresden, one employee died, and many others were injured. The entire company has the death of the team member etched into its identity to this day, partly because of the grief and care shown by the leadership. The tragedy has welded the team together more strongly. 

Step 3: Make the function of the crisis team clear

After the CEO-communication, internal communication comes into play again. As part of the crisis response, make it clear to your company's staff that now, in crisis mode, only two people from the company speak to the outside: the CEO and the company spokesperson as part of the crisis team. Provide a crisis mode language policy for everyone who has customer contact. 

Also crucial: explain why this regulation is so important. A certain siege mentality - us against the rest of the world - can't hurt in a crisis! 

Jonathan Fasel, Experte fĂĽr Krisenkommunikation
Jonathan Fasel, Experte fĂĽr Krisenkommunikation

"Criticism and uncomfortable questions are encouraged in a crisis. Because in this way the concerns and fears of the employees can be better recognised and counteracted."

Jonathan Fasel

Crisis communication expert

Step 4: Seek dialogue with the workforce

Notices, circulars, and staff magazines are the classic instruments of internal communication. And yet they are only one-way communication - exactly what is not needed during a crisis. 

For three quarters of employees, up-to-date and regular information is the most important thing in crisis situations. Especially in stormy times, the acute challenges shape the conversations in the team. If you don't give these conversations space, they will happen anyway - just on WhatsApp, or other channels where you have no influence over the narrative. 

Dialogue with the staff is therefore particularly important. Criticism and uncomfortable questions are even encouraged in a crisis. This way, the concerns and fears of the employees can be better recognised and counteracted. Do not talk down fears but show empathy and understanding. Otherwise, employees who don't feel they are being listened to can undermine your whole team. 

According to a Statista study, only 22 percent of companies use an employee app for this dialogue - although this option would be especially ideal during crisis situations. The employee app also prevents important information from being passed on only verbally - which can be fatal in times of great uncertainty. Statistics show that out of 30 pieces of information passed on verbally to others, only three are received correctly.

For 75% of employees, up-to-date and regular information during a crisis is the most important thing.

Step 5: Declare the crisis mode over

Some crises drag on endlessly and fade into everyday life. Some are over at some point. Don't miss the moment to declare the crisis over when the situation allows it! Following on from the first CEO announcement of the crisis, shows consistency and leadership. And it gives the team the opportunity to pause for a moment and perhaps even celebrate. 

This does not mean that the crisis should be forgotten or not learned from. On the contrary: every crisis is an opportunity to improve processes in the company and to make crisis plans watertight. Affected employees are your most important asset here: they were right in the middle of it and can use their experience to make the company better. 

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