Although most crisis communication research focuses on external stakeholders’ communicative behavior, some recent academic and professional studies have recognized the value and importance of employee communication in a crisis. Successful internal communication helps an organization to minimize the risk of employees’ negative crisis reactions affecting its reputation and turn them into effective evangelists advocating for its crisis communication strategies.
Crises for an organization can take different forms, such as accidents, financial problems, and legal issues, among others. One thing all crises have in common is that affected stakeholders’ expectations of the target organization are violated. Their reactions, like anger, resentment, disappointment, insecurity, stress, fear, and feelings of betrayal can lead to affected stakeholders’ negative behavioral intentions, for instance, negative word-of-mouth communication with their individual, professional and social networks about a crisis. As indicated in The PR Council’s white paper, titled “Crisis Management in the Social Media Age,” employee communication plays a critical role in problem solving for crisis communication, especially given the prevalence of social media use and the intersection between traditional and social media nowadays. Two key things for organizations to manage are: (1) establish and implement guidelines that specify permitted and prohibited conduct for employees when organizations are involved in crises; and (2) coach employees how to respond to queries for information that they may receive from all affected stakeholders.
Academic researchers have discussed the value of employee communication behaviors in crisis communication. Prior studies have suggested that employee actions during crisis communication may be influenced by the type of industry sector, the kind of a crisis, prior crisis history, an organization’s culture for crisis communication, and how central employee communication remains to an organization’s overall strategic planning and decision making. Scholars also conceptualized and measured different types of employees’ behavioral reactions to crises. For example, Dr. Jeong-Nam Kim and Dr. Yunna Rhee defined the following types or aspects of employee communication behaviors in crises: “megaphoning” (employees’ voluntary internal and external information sharing about their organizations’ strengths/accomplishments and weaknesses/problems), “scouting” (employees’ voluntary attention to information, information seeking about further information during their communication with internal and external constituencies, and information sharing of the same information with members at all levels of organizational hierarchy), and “microboundary spanning” (the integration of megaphoning and scouting). Researchers called for organizational efforts to optimize employee communication behaviors to gain advantage in crisis communication and reputation management. Prior empirical evidence indicated that a long-term trusting employee relationship predicts employees’ positive communicative actions during a crisis, and that continuous post-crisis managerial efforts are needed for preparation for future emergencies and crises.
Practitioners have also proposed tips and tools for effective employee communication during a crisis, such as forum posts like “Communicate Effectively during a Crisis” and “The 10-point guide to effective employee communication during a company crisis.” Here is a summary of some research-based (both academic and professional research-based) tips for organizations to handle employee communication for their crisis management:
Pre-crisis Employee Communication
- Have a proper employee communication structure and process in place. Maintain constant and effective communication with employees at all levels of organizational hierarchy.
- Conduct scenario training, establish protocols and channels that ensure seamless internal communication when organizations face crises, and assign achievable objectives and responsibilities ahead.
- Engage employees in organization-wide, systematic planning, implementation and evaluation of an organization’s internal communication and prepare them for even extreme crises it may be involved in and for any opportunities crises may present.
In-crisis Employee Communication
- Openly, timely, and honestly communicate with your employees first. Prevent any rumors and false allegations that may mislead employees’ informal and formal interactions with internal and external constituencies.
- Address the most important questions for employee communication during crises: key and consistent messages, senders and receivers of messages, clear objectives for problem solving, communication channels, timeline, evaluation, and optimization.
- Empower employees to communicate both as individuals as well as allies. Management should guide employees to speak up for the organization as not only individual advocates, ambassadors, or evangelists, but also as communication teams that reinforce core and consistent messages and bring the messages into an organization’s online and offline communities.
- Coach employees to effectively use social media for crisis communication.
- Establish clear guidelines for employee use of both personal and professional social media platforms for crisis communication.
- Focus on both listening and talking. Use social media to keep affected parties informed and updated through the course of a crisis.
- Given the increasing intersection between tradition and social media (i.e., traditional media often rely on social media platforms for information subsidies to report breaking news), cultivate employees’ sensitivity to issues that stakeholders discuss on online forums and guide employees to monitor social media communication climate change in case sensitive issues may develop to be fully-blown crises.
- Maintain optimal response rates (speedy and accurate information dissemination and feedback) at which information is exchanged on different social media platforms. Given this “social media time norm,” both organizational and employee preparedness is pivotal.
- Establish in advance who will be making decisions and communicating directly to employees so as to facilitate their social media use during a crisis.
- Establish a proper and consistent tone of voice for social media communication during a crisis. Communicate with employees immediately once organizational sentiment upon the event(s) on the ground changes.
- Network analyze the connectedness of multi-social media channels. Keep track of employees’ communication behaviors on multiple accounts. Give guidance on how to adjust communication behaviors in relation to various contexts and situations.
Post-Crisis Employee Communication
- Evaluate internal communication during a crisis. Recognize how your employees have performed during the crisis. Make improvements and stay committed to cultivating an on-going communicative culture and a long-term trusting employee relationship.
Mazzei, A., Kim, J.-N., & Dell’Oro, C. (2012). Strategic value of employee relationships and communicative actions: Overcoming corporate crisis with quality internal communication. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 6, 31-44. doi:10.1080/1553118X.2011.634869
Kim, J.-N., & Rhee, Y. (2011). Strategic thinking about employee communication behavior (ECB) in public relations: Testing the models of megaphoning and scouting effects in Korea. Journal of Public Relations Research, 23, 243-268.
Jiang, H., & Luo, Y. (in contract). Social media engagement for crisis communication: A preliminary measurement model. In L. Austin & Y. Jin (Eds.), Social media and crisis communication. Publisher: Routledge.
TOP TIPS: The 10-point guide to effective employee communication during a company crisis. Retrieved from https://www.melcrum.com/research/engage-employees-strategy-and-change/top-tips-10-point-guide-effective-employee
Communicate effectively during a crisis. Retrieved from http://www.snapcomms.com/solutions/internal-crisis-communications.aspx
Schmidt, O. Effective employee communication in times of crisis. Retrieved from http://www.disaster-resource.com/articles/04p_124.shtml
Hua Jiang, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Relations at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University.