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Communicating with Employees in Unsettling Times

The value leaders place on communication, and the attitudes they have towards their communication teams, can change rapidly in a time of crisis. Suddenly communication is unmistakably critical, and leaders and communicators are focused on shared goals, working together under pressure and at pace.

Meanwhile for the organization’s employees, contractors and volunteers, the situation can bring a combination of uncertainty, confusion, the threat of job loss, a sudden deluge of extra work, a myriad of questions from customers and suppliers and a potentially overwhelming supply of information and opinions from all sides.

For internal communicators, the task is to help calm the waters and build a bridge between the organizations’ leaders and its employees, helping each side to understand the other and respond to events in the most effective and efficient way.

Here are seven key tips that can help:

1. Establish a source of clear information and a consistent rhythm of communication updates

Neuroscience teaches us that the brain finds uncertainty hard to deal with, and a crisis can lead to speculation from all directions. So, give people the certainty of a place they can return to (such as an Intranet site) to check for the most up to date news.

Provide proactive leadership updates at the same time, through the same route(s), at appropriate intervals. Keep them up even if there is nothing new to say. And if you say they will happen at 5pm on Tuesdays, do not let them slip to 9am on Wednesday.

2. Explain the context behind events and the reasoning behind decisions

Senior leaders may have spent hours thinking through five different ways to respond to an issue and discarded four of them for very good reasons. Be clear about the chosen route, but also explain why it was decided to go in that direction. Think of it like a maths exam where you get points for showing your workings out.

3. Help leaders at every level of your organization deliver a consistent, clear and simple message.

Do not leave middle managers out in the cold to speculate and, unwittingly, create uncertainty. Nothing creates confusion and anxiety more quickly than different versions of the same story circulating around.

Local managers need to translate the central message into terms that make sense to their teams but, if possible, they need pre-briefing and time to prepare. Consider creating briefing conversations where leaders can provide insight into their thinking and front-line managers can report local concerns and sentiment.

4. Have routes to understand employee's concerns and questions

Read what people are saying in your internal social media. Have a route for people to submit questions that is accessible to everyone. Put in place key contacts in each division or site, so they can update you on flashpoints. Consider a regular virtual check-with your contacts as a group or do a quick phone around each of them.

Address the concerns and answer the questions. Do not let leaders avoid the difficult ones. Be honest with the answers and avoid wordy, fudgy responses that say nothing. People can spot them a mile off and you will just end up losing trust.

5. Fully co-ordinate with colleagues dealing with communication to external media, customers and suppliers

Establish regular check-ins to make sure you are working consistently and alert each other to issues or potential developments. Make sure employees have whatever they need to answer questions from customers and suppliers.

Remember, even if someone is not in a customer-facing role, they may well have friends or family who are customers – how do you want them to respond to their concerns?

6. De-clutter the comms

If people are being flooded with information about a crisis, identify what other communications can stop. Contrary to popular assumption, it is possible to overcommunicate. In a stressful situation, people can find it harder to plan and make decisions, so help them to prioritize and focus their attention and effort on what is most important.

7. Tell employees what they can do

In a change or crisis, it is natural for people to feel helpless or powerless. Being able to take some sort of action can help, however small those actions might seem.

Working as a professional communicator at the heart of a crisis can be an adrenaline-fuelled mix of exhaustion and trepidation as you step-up to deal with a situation you might never have predicted or dealt with before… but it can also lead to reward and fulfilment, thanks to teamwork with colleagues and the experience of performing at pace, while knowing you’re making a genuine difference.

Our final advice is to take care of yourself. Your crisis could turn out to be a marathon rather than a sprint, so pace yourself - as much as the adrenaline will keep you going, your health and well-being are equally important.

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