Internal Crisis Communication and Employee Engagement: A Closer Look at Multinational Companies

Angelos Vasileiou

 

Internal crisis communication has been remarkably neglected both in academia and in professional practice. At the same time, the environment that organisations operate in has changed dramatically, and communication professionals face various challenges and deal with unforeseen events on a-daily basis. My dissertation project, which was recently finished and published, explores how multinationals use internal crisis communication and in what way they engage with their employees before, during, and after a crisis.

 

Employees form one of the most critical groups of stakeholders for every organisation. When crisis hits, they can be a brand’s ambassadors and a critical part of the solution for mitigating those situations, but they must be well informed. Employees need to know exactly what is happening and how to respond when they receive questions. The focus of my study was multinational companies because their diverse and dispersed workforces present a unique challenge in finding ways to cope with and communicate in the face of crisis.  For them, it is not only about introducing internal crisis communication practices, but also overcoming language barriers and cultural nuances. My research and analysis found that multinationals seem to be operating from a basis of fear rather than planning and preparation. However, they do have the resources needed to develop internal crisis communication plans. This article draws on my main findings.

 

#1 Defining crisis shows you the way

 

Whatever happens to an organisation directly impacts its employees. Defining crisis as a concept is the first step on how you will address it. The way that an organisation defines crisis or what events are perceived as a crisis, reflects the maturity of the organisation itself. As a result, it should not be a question whether we communicate/engage with the employees or not. The decision to share or not information with employees will have critical consequences in the trust relationships between the organisation and its people, providing information equals respecting and trusting your people. This is how you establish an honest and transparent communication with a critical stakeholder, your employees. However, the study showed that whether they will communicate with their employees depends on the circumstances. 'It depends’ was a phrase that was used by all communicators at some point of their interview. This indicates how challenging it is to deal with it.

 

#2 The impact of the organisational culture 

 

Organisational culture shapes the way information is shared and communication is practiced. More specifically, for multinationals organisational culture needs to be communicated continually because in these large organisations, change is a constant.  Moreover, an organisation needs to prove to its internal stakeholders that it can go through turbulent times and remain stable because this is a normal part of the organisational lifecycle. Mindful communicators grasp the opportunities for change by scrutinizing organisational culture as a dynamic concept relative to the surrounding environment. Employees should be empowered to look for organisational weaknesses instead of a comfort blanket by keep doing the same job in the same way. This is a bottom-up approach that can drive excellence from inside the organisation.

 

 #3 Establish various internal channels

 

Given that multinational companies have thousands of employees across various regions, multiple internal channels make it possible to communicate effectively to all internal stakeholders regardless of position, hierarchy, or cultural background. Using Intranet, emails and internal social media platforms, organisations can create a richly diverse digital environment where employees can find information in multiple ways which may suit their own communication needs and preferences.

Furthermore, a network of communicators, who understand local context and can collaborate across the organisation, enables multinationals to share effective practices across diverse operating environments. Some channels identified in the research were PA systems, use WhatsApp groups, satellite systems which work independently of IT systems, offline phonebooks, digital signage or even printed communication. Finally, offline communication by mobilizing local management creates an open and transparent flow of information. This is a more personalized way to share what has happened internally.

 

#4 Preparation is key to new opportunities

 

Being prepared is more than just having a plan.  In large multinational organisations, running actual scenarios and crisis simulation exercises are critical to preparedness. The research showed that multinationals invest a considerable amount of resources in preparedness exercises to mitigate risk and demonstrate that they are agile and able to adjust to changing circumstances. As such, crisis response teams meet regularly for training. It is crucial that all members of these teams, including communicators, use these exercises as an opportunity to build relationships and trust to facilitate smooth operations and execution of plans if, and when, crisis does occur.  This training, rehearsal and trust building allows for the mitigation of preventable occurrences and unforeseen circumstances in the execution of crisis management plans. 

 

#5 Diversity and its impact

 

By nature, multinationals have a quite diverse workforce. This enables them to realize more opportunity, deliver better outcomes, and operate more effectively in complex situations. However dispersed workforces do bring unique challenges.  Even if multinationals adopt English as a lingua franca, there remain cultural and language understanding discrepancies that impact the way diverse audiences receive, interpret, and perceive information. Here, again, local communicators are the ones who translate and adapt the messages. During a crisis, events take place very fast and for multinationals it is a struggle to respond as quickly as is required, to provide timely messages and information to their internal stakeholders. The delay is further exacerbated when the messages must be effectively translated into other languages and cultural contexts without losing the intended meaning. Cultural nuances need to be taken into consideration in internal crisis communication and communicators with strong business understanding can help the organisation to overcome this obstacle. After all homogeneous groups act in a uniform way, but as our world becomes more complex this means that complex problems require complex solutions.

 

You can read more about my dissertation project at:

https://lup.lub.lu.se/student-papers/search/publication/8954374

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Angelos Vasileiou holds a Bachelor degree in Communication and Media Studies from the University of Athens and recently graduated from Lund University. At Lund University he was enrolled in the MSc in Strategic Communication.

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