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Internal communications during a workplace related crisis

Rob Ford fired his Chief of Staff, Mark Towhey and Steven Harper accepted the “resignation” of his Chief of Staff, Nigel Wright, the week of May 23, 2013 which has surely been the one of the worst weeks for Chiefs of Staff in Canada for a while.

Job descriptions for a Chief of Staff position generally include the dissemination information and communication of ideas on behalf of the leader and the organization. The Chief of Staff, among many other duties is expected to respond on behalf of the leader to issues that arise, both internal and external, managing and monitoring the flow of information. At no time is this role more important is during crisis communications. So why fire your Chief of Staff when right in the middle of the firestorm?

Silence raises suspicions

In both situations the escalation of the crisis has been at least in part due to absolutely terrible communications strategy. Sometimes (and especially in this day and age with so much information and media at everyone’s fingertips) silence and stonewalling fan the flames of scandal in a news hungry world. Future Human Resources and leadership textbooks could easily use these cases as examples of how not to handle a crisis. Silence has elevated the suspicion of substance in these stories.

Human resources and internal communications

The role of the Chief of Staff as pertinent to internal communications for a political leader is often a role taken by a Human Resources Director for the CEO of an organization. Having an Internal Communications strategy is a must for any organization but it is especially invaluable during a crisis. The internal communications strategy consists of:

  • the design and production of the message
  • message distribution
  • developing and selecting channels
  • direction and timing of messages
  • logistics of message management
  • line manager responsibilities
  • management of social media

This internal communications strategy is distinct from marketing, media relations and public relations because the target audience of internal communications is the employees.

HR liability for internal communications

All internal documents may be subpoenaed as evidence. Remember that whatever you say or communicate with your employees will likely be public evidence down the road or may show up on social media the next day! The distinction between internal and external communications is sometimes blurred.

Strategic importance of communication to employees during a crisis

During a crisis in which the organization or the leader faces damage to their reputation or brand, a consistent internal message to employees is important because employees are a key channel through which the message gets out. Employees’ friends and relatives seek their account of events. Employees themselves may be trying to figure out where they stand in the crisis and whether or not they are behind the leader and the organization. Building and nurturing relationships with employees can pay off with loyalty, engagement and organizational longevity, especially if done effectively during times of stress and crisis. Long after the crisis is over, employees will remember how the leaders of the organization communicated with them throughout the duration of the events.

Internal communications contingency planning

Organizations with a strong and well developed internal communications strategy will likely have plans in place to meet various crises similar to the various types of contingency plans for different emergencies (bomb threat, fire, epidemic). Practice makes perfect. Well tested and rehearsed line management communications capabilities facilitate effective, believable, transparent and authentic communication about the crisis to employees that impact employee connection or disconnection to the organization through the present crisis and down the road.

Internal communications, internal marketing and human capital management

Internal communications, internal marketing, corporate communications and human capital management have the same ultimate goal of driving organizational success through highly engaged and productive employees. Whether the responsibility of leadership communication with employees during a crisis falls under the direction of Human Resources, Communications, Governance or even the CEO, the internal communications strategy is key to organizational success.

If your own staff doesn’t believe you—what chance do you have with the voters or consumers?

Crisis containment vs Organizational longevity

Rob Ford and Stephen Harper may survive the current crisis.  The crises have escalated because the external communication strategy in both cases—one of stonewalling and silence—failed to contain the crisis. The subsequent forced exit of both Chiefs of Staff also shows evidence of a failed internal or at least deeply flawed, internal communications system. Long after the crisis is contained or managed externally, the internal impact will likely be seen in in increased exits in senior and junior staff and increasing isolation of the leaders to the detriment of the organizations that they serve. In public service, it is the voters who have ultimate impact for the organization, but the lesson is also transferrable to success or failure in business.

Marcia Scheffler
M.A., CHRP Candidate

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Marcia Scheffler

Human Resources Generalist at Wawel Villa
Marcia Scheffler, M.A., CHRP Candidate is a Human Resources Generalist with M.A. working full-time as a Senior HR Officer. She is interested in the intersection of human resources theory and current best practices in HR. Read more
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