· 5 min read · Features

Keeping internal communications open in times of crisis

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Coronavirus has been an exercise in effective internal communications, but now the UK is, somewhat, out of the eye of the storm, what lessons is HR taking forward when preparing for future crises? Cath Everett finds out.

With everything from remote work arrangements to new health and safety guidelines frequently changing overnight, a key role of HR functions over the last two pandemic-scarred years has been creating appropriate crisis communications.

While in previous situations the focus was often mainly on getting external communications right, Covid reinforced just how critical a stakeholder group employees are too.


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The crisis directly affected not only people’s day-to-day work and employment conditions but also their personal lives and families. As a result, it became clear just how important effective internal communications really are in difficult times.

Moreover, as Jonathan Hemus, managing director of crisis management consultancy Insignia Communications, points out, workers are not just recipients of information and messaging. They also play an important role in communicating them to other stakeholders, such as customers and suppliers.

“Employees can either be the organisation’s best ambassadors in a crisis and offer a powerful way to address a problem, or they can be its biggest critic if they don’t feel they’re getting the answers or action they expect,” Hemus explains.

As a result, he believes: “The job of internal communications is to bolster and retain the trust and confidence of an organisation’s people and ensure that their concerns and worries are addressed promptly.

“This means that for crisis management to be successful, what you say and what you do are equally important.”

But it is also vital that they are both in line with a company’s culture and values. “Communications have to be built on strong foundations in terms of previous culture and relationships. They aren’t a magic wand, especially if they’re hollow,” Hemus says.

 

Be prepared

Being prepared is also essential. Those employers that failed to plan for a crisis of any kind struggled most during the pandemic, Hemus says, while those that thought things through in advance, including who to communicate with, how and via which channels, were more likely to get the tone right.

One organisation that was very well prepared in this way was the Government of Jersey, joint-winner of the Best Crisis Management Strategy in the 2021 HR Excellence Awards.

It had already undertaken scenario planning and developed a ‘playbook’ as part of its risk management strategy, which could be adapted to address different situations.

This playbook laid out, among other things, who was responsible for what and in which order actions should be taken. Actions included setting up a ‘command-and-control’ structure to cascade information down from the top and channel feedback back up, with the intention of enabling effective two-way communication.

As Mark Grimley, Jersey’s group director for people and corporate services, says: “Two-way communications are key as they help you to both understand what’s happening and what challenges the frontline are facing, so you can adapt things
as necessary.”

The command-and-control structure itself, meanwhile, consists of a Competent Authority (the equivalent of the UK government’s Civil Contingencies Committee), a Gold Strategic Coordination Group to set out objectives and strategy, and a Tactical Coordination Group, which deploys resources appropriately to deliver on these aims.

As a member of the first two groups Grimley, who is also responsible for business continuity, was able to input into policy decision-making and help set strategy rather than having to act on secondhand messages, a situation that enabled him to communicate information to others more effectively.

“Everything we did was linked to our strategic objectives to ensure we could explain the ‘why’ to colleagues,” he says. “In a crisis situation, it’s imperative to have clear objectives, focus on their delivery and not get distracted or allow mission-creep – if that happens, messages become diluted, confused or even contradictory.

“Communications need to be simple, clear and directional.”

 

Variety helps

Faisal Saleem, European HR director at mining technology provider Weir Minerals, which employs 700 staff across the region, agrees.

“It’s important to avoid jargon by using everyday language and putting things in laymen’s terms, especially when you have a mixture of blue-collar workers and people for whom English isn’t a first language like us,” he says.

“Real-world examples are also useful as they help bring things to life.”

Just as vital though is understanding not simply what you want people to know and do but also what you want them to feel, believes Jenni Field, founder and CEO of consultancy, Redefining Communications.

Field says this enables you to communicate in a more genuine and human way: “So, for example, focus on what people need to know to feel safe if they’re coming back into the office by indicating that desks will be more spread out or there’ll be extra hand sanitising stations,” she explains.

“It also comes across as more authentic if you use the kind of language you would generally use, so talk like you.”

Another consideration is tailoring communications to particular audiences. To this end, Saleem introduced a two-tier communications model, whereby his internal communications team formulated universal messages centrally and country managers tailored them at the local level.

But Saleem also felt it was important to be a bit more creative than usual in how such communications were delivered. For instance, rather than simply using email and other digital channels, he found that returning to “old-fashioned” approaches, such as putting posters on doors, was an effective means of grabbing people’s attention.

“I’d say just because we’re in a digital age, don’t be afraid of going back to traditional methods of communication,” Saleem says.

“So it’s about using everything from pop-up banners to key messages on payslips and signs in coffee areas – you just need to stop and think about how to get messages across in a way that’s right for employees.”

 

Reassure

As for getting the frequency of communications right, it is essential to redefine and resend messages regularly, on multiple occasions and via multiple means to ensure they have been received and understood.

As Saleem points out: “Regular communications, even if you’re just repeating yourself, reassure people and give them confidence as it shows you’re aware and are dealing with the situation.”

To ensure these experiences and insights can be used to inform crisis communications strategies into the future, Grimley recommends a
thorough review and treating (two-way) communications as another means for learning and understanding.

“The safest industries, such as aviation, always take learning and apply it to prevent the same thing happening again, and all organisations, particularly in their recovery phases, should take time to do this,” he counsels.

“Be brutally honest and ensure that the learning isn’t just recorded but followed through.”

Grimley also suggests developing a general crisis communications strategy and plan that can be called upon should trouble strike in future.

“A proactive strategy allows you to build your narrative,” he says. “Reactive communications are ad hoc and therefore less understood in terms of the ‘why this, why now?’”

A final consideration relates to empathy and taking the time to put yourself in the shoes of others to understand their concerns and communicate with them accordingly.

Grimley concludes: “Your employees are your brand. How you’ve treated them during the pandemic and how you treat them going forward will be more important than ever.

“That will say more about your organisation than any internal or external communication can.”

 

This piece appears in the January/February 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.