What Matters Most When a Crisis Hits?
It’s not just a job – it’s a place where you feel safe and surrounded by like-minded people.
It’s not just something you get paid for – it’s a place where you spend a significant portion of your life.
It’s not just something you can drop in an instance and move on – it’s a place that changes the way you see yourself.
If the employees give it their best, day in day out, at the very least they should expect the leadership to do the same. There can be no real employee engagement without a mutual feeling of respect and trust between the workforce and leadership of the organisation.
Trust does not equal “like” – although, it does help if we like someone we work with/for. And this trust is paramount if we are ever to expect any form of employee advocacy or support in a crisis.
The core principles of crisis communication require us to tell it first, tell it fast and tell it all. Often, organisations forget that their employees are their first stage gate in crisis communication – employees are for a business what 1st degree relatives (parents, daughters/sons, siblings) are for a family.
As individuals, when we have a personal crisis, we discuss it with our family and/or friends first – we don’t rush into the corner shop and shout it out, hoping that a family member might be there to hear and comfort us. By the same token, why would we disregard or consider less relevant the notion of “employees first” in a crisis?
One of the main reasons there are still organisations who don’t inform their employees first when a crisis is about to strike is … fear. Yes, fear taken to almost a pathological level of inaction. Many C-suite directors still believe (some will admit it, others won’t) that announcing a crisis to the employees first:
May cause unnecessary stress and disruption to the workforce (“better if they don’t know”)
May put the leadership in an uncomfortable situation (answering questions they are not ready to)
May lend a sense of fatalism to the crisis (“if we tell them first, they’ll think it’s much worse than it actually is”)
May cause union intervention (“we save ourselves from a potential law suit or strike action because right now we really don’t need either”)
May bring up other buried issues from the past (“we don’t want to hear “we told you so”)
May be perceived as a leadership failure to handle the situation that caused the crisis (“we don’t want them to think we are incompetent to lead them”)
May lead to a loss of respect (“what if they think we are weak?”)
Employee-employer is a two-way relationship first, and a service provider – customer relationship second. The employees are a formidable force, even in a very small company – they have the power not only to directly disrupt the financial results of a business and its reputation but, mostly, if they are not properly informed and brought on board during a crisis, they can significantly lead to its escalation.
People panic – we all do. The unknown scares us. The uncertainty and rumours cause hysteria. False information spreads much faster in a crisis if there is no authoritative source (i.e. someone we trust implicitly) to dispute the rumours.
There are only 3-4 degrees of separation between the employees and any of your external stakeholders. They can act as the greatest loudspeaker system of any organisation – for the employees to trust what we - the communicators - are sharing with them, they have to trust us. In turn, we need to trust those we get the information to share with the employees from – the leadership of the organisation.
The public trusts individuals (members of the general public) more than they trust brands or official communications – the employees are not a brand: they are people, individuals in the wider societal groups can easily relate to and sympathise with.
Trust goes both ways - when the crisis hits, you will very quickly understand why nothing matters more to an employee than to trust you, the communicator, and the leadership whose information you are disseminating.
Founding Chartered PR Practitioner, CIPR Board member (2018-2020), UK Government Communication Services and Institute of Directors mentor, published author and university lecturer, Ella Minty has almost 20 years of high level government and international organisations experience in corporate reputation, leadership and crisis management, across business disciplines and governments, including investment markets, lender organisations, national and international media, NGOs and affected communities.
She is a 2014 Service Award Winner of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, Assessor of CIPR’s Chartered Scheme, an elected member of the CIPR Council (2017-2019), and a Fellow of the Institute of Leadership and Management. She handled some of the most prominent international crisis of recent times. Ella developed the Leadership Development Programme for MENA young engineers and she has also been an adviser to several governments on their national branding strategies. Her list of clients includes McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, Total, British Petroleum, Shell, Centrica, Averda, US Energy Freedom, Private Investment Development Group, the European Commission, the House of Commons, the Renaissance Foundation and many others. Ella is also a member of McKinsey&Company Executive Panel and Robert Gordon University’s Lead Trainer for the Crisis Communication Diploma course (CIPR Specialist Diploma).