HomeNewsCovid-19: The importance of internal crisis communication

Covid-19: The importance of internal crisis communication

public relations:with Lenox Mhlanga

The Covid-19 pandemic is a major crisis like no other. No firm has ever imagined a scenario of this magnitude. From a crisis communications standpoint, the situation we all find ourselves in is still continuing and its end indefinite. The impact to business, both small and large, with the inevitable loss of jobs and closure, is immense.

The pandemic ticks all the boxes of a major a crisis, an inherently abnormal and complex situation that represents a threat to strategic objectives, the reputation or even the existence of an organisation.

In Zimbabwe, there are businesses that have taken the cautious approach in the current crisis by shutting down operations, albeit temporarily. We have been witnesses to a flurry of internal memos confirming this leaked on social media. This puts into stark focus what organisations have to deal with when it comes to communicating during a crisis.

“It is never a matter of if, but a matter of when crises happen. Crises are inevitable and it is how leaders and organisations respond to these crises that shapes how they will be judged in the eyes of employees and other stakeholders,” says Thandolwenkosi Nkomo, a public relation researcher, strategist and trainer.

For business leaders, managing a crisis is seen as an inevitable part of their role. However, when the chips are down, they tend to concentrate their communication efforts on external audiences.

In past crises, we have seen executives concentrate their communication efforts on externa stakeholder groups — perhaps investors, regulators or highly vocal consumers — while neglecting others like customers, suppliers or employees. Given the fact that the biggest impact is assumed to be on the brand’s image and organisational reputation, such an approach is understood.

However, when an organisation plans for a crisis, it should ensure that the crisis communications should have not only have an external focus, but an internal one as well. It’s important to address all the organisation’s stakeholders. The need is on closely managing the messaging that goes out to these all audiences in the era of social media.

Planning and implementing a crisis communication plan for the organisation’s most valuable assets, the employees, maintains a degree of stability by controlling the narrative. This is essential before anxiety and rumour set in. It is for this reason that a company’s messaging during a crisis should be authentic.

In PwC’s (PricewaterhouseCoopers) latest Global Crisis Survey, the multinational professional services network of firms says that a major crisis demands that business leaders engage remote and frontline employees with
real-time, personal, consistent communications about health and safety, policy updates and guidance from leadership.

Information is key not only to counter misinformation, but to help to ensure continuity in operations, now that employees work from home. Employees need factual information to deal with their fears and use facts to process how the crisis impacts on their work. This helps employees process the situation in an environment of mutual trust with the employer.

They need assurances around what is happening now and how it adversely affects their jobs. Sharing the right information to the right people through their favourite channels and platforms is advisable.

“Be transparent and forthright about the health of your business and any plans to take workforce actions, especially the possibility of furloughs or layoffs, uncertainty and confusion may contribute to anxiety and fears, but clear information can help employees feel more informed and better able to focus, ” the PwC report says.

PwC further advises that business leaders should aim for honest and frequent communications that underscore a strong sense of purpose. During a crisis, it’s more important than ever that people understand why their work matters and how they are personally helping to contribute to the success of the business.

While protecting the company’s image and reputation is a top priority, it is the realisation that employees are a business’ best brand ambassadors when the chips are down. They can either uplift or damage the reputation depending on how they are treated. If employee relations are good, then there is little to worry about, just ensuring that whatever happens, keeping them in the loop will get much needed buy-in for the business’ communication efforts.

One thing we all look forward to is the time when this epidemic will pass. Communication will be essential for employees to have a better understanding of what happened and how their actions and attitudes will help in the recovery process. There will be plenty of lessons when the crisis has hopefully ended.

Valene Jouany of Smarp.com encourages open discussions among employees about their experiences to help them heal while rebuilding trust in a disrupted workplace. In a crisis where a well-coordinated approach involves everyone, everyone being on the same page knowing what their role is, there is little chance of lack of cooperation.

Where business leaders think of the vulnerability of their employees and are empathetic to their situation, riding the crisis storm is that much easier. Finally, humility, a valuable leadership attribute in the best of times, becomes a plus when weathering trying times like these.

l Lenox Mhlanga is managing consultant with Sunshine Corporate Communications, a public relations agency that offers strategic counsel to clients. He has worked for the World Bank and other organisations spread in all sectors of the economy. Contact: lenox@sunshinecomms.com

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