YOU never know when your organisation may have to go into crisis management mode. Hence, you should always be prepared for it.
But sometimes even the best-laid plans don’t go to plan.
In times of crisis, how do you handle your customers and your stakeholders? How will your organisation cope with the challenges to come?
Patrick Nathan has been at the forefront of tackling crises. As the Vice President for Corporate Communications at SMRT, he spent the past few years dealing with breakdowns, delays and fatal accidents.
After leaving SMRT at the end of January 2018, Nathan has been working with organisations preparing them for potential crises.
Nathan begins a series of occasional articles for STORM.SG and will be sharing his experiences and opinions at panel discussions.
“I hope to talk and write about several sets of issues that connect communications with other corporate functions such as HR and Finance, and about Crisis Communications and Crisis Management and Crisis Anticipation,” says Nathan.
“Of course, you don’t operate in a vacuum. It’s a complex stakeholder environment that most communications teams work within. There are many interests and priorities to manage, and you’re not always in absolute control of your narrative, message or timing. But you try to do your best.”
“I’ve learnt many things along the way and have had the privilege of engaging my peers. These reflections are a consolidation of these experiences and conversations,” he explains.
Many organisations operate in silos, with their Business Units and Corporate Departments often working independently. I thought I’d reflect on one issue in particular that might compel our HR and Communications colleagues to get into the same room to better prepare themselves for the next crisis.
Seven things HR must do to shore up morale during a crisis.
1. Engage Your Staff
Messages to staff from the CEO are well and good. Townhalls are great. But you need to enlist the support of all your senior management to cascade messages of reassurance to all staff, down to your people at the worksites.
To do this, you need to have a well-thought-through set of talking points and an even better set of questions and answers that seeks to anticipate the concerns of staff at different levels of the organisation and at the different business units they work in.
This will not only help to shore up morale, but it will also empower employees to deal reasonably and assuredly with questions that will inevitably come from friends and families.
Your staff are your best advocates.
Also, consider placing some of these messages from the CEO and senior management on selected digital and social media platforms to demonstrate to customers that you care and are serious about setting things right.
2. Take The Issue Head-on
These dialogues must address the core issues around any crisis. Crises become even more difficult to manage when they involve staff in the first instance. For example, when staff are directly to blame for the incident. They will watch very carefully at how senior management is dealing with it.
Will investigations stop at only finding complicity at the level of rank and file?
Will it include middle and senior management?
Where does the buck stop?
The management of such crises gets more complex when external stakeholders get involved. Separately, have senior management speak to the media. Publicly taking responsibility, demonstrating accountability, explaining the root causes, and committing to a timeline for rectification and repair will boost morale.
3. Be Considerate
When errant staff need to be disciplined, everyone else will be watching to see how the company deals with it.
If remorse is shown, will some compassion follow?
You would need to strictly abide by internal processes. Staff may need to be dismissed.
The union must be engaged throughout the entire process. They are an incredibly important partner when it comes to looking after affected staff and their families.
It takes on a whole new dimension when there are injuries sustained by staff and customers. The crisis could take months or years to resolve. This is where everyone will be watching as to how well you are working with staff, customers and their families and how sustained your efforts are in bringing the crisis to closure.
Specially assigned liaison staff and care counsellors would need to be committed to the process. Senior management will want to visit the injured at hospitals, and pay their respects at wakes and funerals.
Don’t be crass with media coverage.
Pay very close attention to the letters you draft as expressions of care and concern to all those affected.
4. Be Tireless
Communicating with staff around a major crisis does not end with one townhall.
The news cycle can often be protracted. Internal investigations followed by external investigations followed by court cases that will certainly appear in the media and will be amplified on social media.
And so, communications to staff would need to be constant and focussed. They should be the first to be told rather than reading it in the news.
Social media bears close watching. There will inevitably be various versions of the truth circulating across different platforms. You need to be actively monitoring these not just to discern perception gaps and selectively address these on social media, but more so to inform staff about what is being said and what the truth is about various allegations and assertions. Again, your staff will be your best advocates.
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5. Collect Feedback
When you brief staff and keep them updated on an ongoing crisis, be sure to collect feedback at different levels and from different worksites.
Be assiduous in analysing the feedback because it can tell you much about your employees’ feelings and about how they are coping with the crisis.
Adjust your talking points and Q&As. And just don’t rely on the survey techniques you have in your arsenal. Your HR business partner must speak with staff, one-on-one if necessary, especially with the people closest to those affected.
6. Follow Up
If the investigations show that remedial action needs to be taken, do so quickly. Your staff needs to see that senior management is serious about declarations to “never let this happen again”.
Get external help to put in place the right frameworks, structures, and processes. Some of the steps you take may be about fundamental changes you make to engineering and maintenance practices. Some may involve infrastructure and worksite redesign. Some may involve reassignment of staff and job redesign.
Although the jury is out on this one, an amnesty period for staff to voluntarily raise or disclose mistakes or wrongful practices may be useful. But whatever you do, you would need to ensure it is permanent and persistent, and that it does not float away with the next change in management. It needs to be institutionalised.
Have some media coverage about this to demonstrate resolve and the steps taken.
Show statistics to prove early successes. Let the media engage staff. They will certainly talk to customers on their own.
7. Be Careful About Your Profile
During, and in the immediate aftermath of, a crisis, be sure you set the right mood internally, and externally in all your engagements and on all your platforms.
A sombre, contemplative mood should prevail. Corporate departments and business units should put off to another time announcements and events that would be obviously construed as inappropriate or misdirected.
When an incident has resulted in harm and injury, set a solemn tone on all your public advertising, and digital and social media platforms. Assist staff with voluntary contributions and activities to help affected employees and customers.
Also, during this critical period, be careful about launching PR campaigns. This would be okay the first time a crisis has struck. It can certainly help morale and change public perception, in the months after. It can be particularly effective when staff are part of your public relations efforts.
But you can only do this once.
The next time a crisis hits, your customers will be baying for blood.
Perhaps, a much more effective campaign may be one that profiles middle and senior management responsible for specific areas of the business!
Watch out for more articles on Crisis Communications. If you have specific queries, email email@example.com
Patrick Nathan was VP for Corporate Communications at SMRT. Prior to that, he was in government for almost three decades. His assignment at SMRT has given him a unique window view to an organisation going through significant transition with its implementation of major renewal and upgrade programmes.