Crisis Management: Communicating with Employees When Chaos Strikes

Mar 4, 2024Events

Many years ago, when Massachusetts was under the leadership of Governor Bill Weld and Lieutenant Governor Paul Cellucci, I served as chief of staff. We worked in an old building in beautiful downtown Boston where, one day, a small but serious crisis struck. Asbestos was found in the walls, forcing the entire building to shut down immediately.  

When the evacuation was ordered, we didn’t have time to adequately explain the situation to the building’s employees. Somehow, though, the news media got hold of the story. As people flooded out of the building, Channel Seven was on the scene with their cameras, asking the employees about the asbestos problem—a problem they weren’t even aware of yet!

An otherwise orderly evacuation quickly devolved into sheer panic, with employees asking, “Is the governor trying to kill us?! Why have we been working in an unsafe building?!” 

That day, I learned how imperative it is that companies inform their employees quickly and cohesively in any crisis situation, no matter how mild or resolvable. Without reliable information, employees are left speculating, and the conclusions they’ll dream up in a moment of fear are almost always worse than reality.


Silence Breeds Rumors

My public relations team has seen this mistake many times: senior management wants to prevent panic, so they decide to keep the problem in the C-suite and provide little to no communication to the broader team. Unfortunately, this attempt at maintaining privacy rarely proves successful. If even the tiniest nugget of information works its way to a team member, rumors will be flying before you know it—and rumors are invariably worse than reality!

You may think, “My company has a media policy preventing employees from speaking with the media, so I don’t need to worry about that.” But when uncertain employees are confronted by a news crew, the company’s media bans will be the last thing on their minds. To prevent uncontrolled, inaccurate representations of the crisis, you have to communicate quickly and clearly with your employees about what’s happening and what’s expected of them.


Simple Steps to Clear Communication

Whether you’re communicating with reporters, customers, or employees, your crisis communications strategy is essentially the same. You want to release a clear, concise message quickly, explain the actions you’re taking immediately, and set expectations for when and how you’ll provide follow-up information about the situation.

While any crisis can feel overwhelming, communicating about it is truly very simple. Wise leaders leverage these straightforward steps when talking to their team:

  • Acknowledge what has occurred
  • Express the appropriate empathy or concern
  • Reveal the steps being taken to mitigate the problem
  • Reiterate the Core Values that are driving your response
  • Commit to specific, actionable next steps

Effective internal statements include phrases such as these:

  • “We’re all in this together.”
  • “We’re cooperating with this investigation, and we will provide monthly updates.” 
  • “We will send an email update every two weeks until the situation is resolved.”


Maintain Your Team’s Trust in a Crisis

Employees are the bridge between a company’s vision and its execution. They’re the people doing the frontline work, talking to the customers or clients, and serving as in-house brand ambassadors. Employees are a company’s greatest asset, but make the wrong move, and you’ll face an entirely new crisis: the loss of your employees’ trust. Without trust, morale weakens, motivation vanishes, and, in some cases, employees quit. 

To maintain trust, your organization must clearly demonstrate that it values every employee, even in the midst of a crisis. A critical part of proving how you value your employees is ensuring that they’re aware of a crisis before anyone outside the organization learns of it—especially the media.

Of course, this can be challenging in companies with remote employees or multiple branches, but it’s not impossible. A crisis communications strategy will establish the key leaders on your crisis team and ensure timely, seamless communication throughout your organization.


How to Communicate in a Crisis

There isn’t one “perfect” way to communicate with your employees about a crisis. How severe is the crisis? How rapidly do people need to be informed?

The crisis team may need to send a text message for the most immediate dissemination. Other times, an email is the best approach. When time allows, it may be best to call an all-hands meeting where the CEO addresses the entire team in person or via Zoom. If time isn’t quite as critical, some organizations will record and send an informational video along with guidance on who to contact with additional questions.


How NOT to communicate

Leaders often get so caught up in how a looming crisis will affect their bottom line that they fail to see how their employees will be affected. In an effort to retain shareholders and revenue, they communicate unsympathetically and impersonally, which only exacerbates the problem.

In my crisis workshops, I always play the viral video of Vishal Garg firing a third of his workforce via a Zoom call. This tone-deaf approach turned a somber decision into a full-blown company crisis. Mr. Garg could have avoided the crisis completely had he simply discussed his plan with a crisis manager, who certainly would have recognized the risks and helped him devise a more effective, less threatening plan for presenting the wave of layoffs.


3 Crisis Preparation Tips

You can start your own crisis management journey with three crisis exercises I use in all my crisis training sessions.


1. List 3-5 worst-case scenarios

What are three to five crises that could truly devastate your company? These aren’t fun to think about, but you need to think about them and say them out loud. 

“I’m afraid of a data breach that could knock us off the communications grid.” 

“I’m afraid of a manufacturing accident that could injure or kill one of my staff.” 

“I’m afraid of losing the biggest client we have.”

“I’m afraid my employee’s violent ex-spouse might show up at the office and hurt someone.”

Whatever it is, name it. By honing in on your biggest fears, you’ll be on your way to preparing for lesser crises, too.


2. Form your crisis team

Next, think about who you’d want to be involved in responding to a crisis within your company. Your crisis management team could be in-house, external, or a combination of the two. With those people identified, you can now sit down with your newly formed crisis team and brainstorm possible approaches for your worst-case scenarios.


3. Draft sample responses

Crisis teams bring people together for the sole purpose of crisis preparation and resolution. They provide fresh perspectives, offer unique points of view, and outline smart strategies. As I’ve seen with many of my public relations clients, the best crisis teams bring together a diverse group of leaders with a variety of problem-solving skills. 

With the company’s support, these teams can begin drafting sample response messages and building protocols for managing crises of every scope and scale.


A Little Preparation Goes a Long Way

When a company is in crisis, a little preparation goes a long way toward preserving the organization’s reputation and keeping customers cared for. The businesses that emerge from a crisis stronger than ever are those that approach every possibility honestly, openly, and with sincere compassion.

By communicating with your employees in both good times and bad, you’ll push through even the toughest challenges with your team—and their trust—intact.

Talk to the Goodwin Consulting team about our crisis communication and support services!