Effective internal communications in a crisis

Effective internal communications in a crisis
Published: 27 April 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown many businesses into tough, unforeseen situations with great uncertainty for the future. Now more than ever, the board and senior leaders need to ensure that how and what they communicate to their colleagues is effective and consistent.

I spoke with Helen Miller who, until recently, was Talent, Culture and Communications Director at The Very Group, about how to successfully communicate internally in a crisis. The Very Group have transformed from a traditional print catalogue business to one of the UK’s biggest online retailers and have recently undergone a rebrand from Shop Direct. Helen led on internal communications for The Very Group for three years, articulating the importance of their business transformation internally, whilst maintaining high levels of employee engagement.

Helen explained that there are multiple ways to transmit messages. They fall into two main categories:

  1. Broadcasting information
  2. Two-way communication where colleagues can ask questions and offer their thoughts

Leaders must ensure they have a clear view of their broadcast messages’ purpose and what platform they should use, making it easy for colleagues to know where to go for information.

All members of the Board and senior managers need to step up and lead from the front during a crisis. The Board should spend time with their dedicated leadership team to ensure messages are repeated and consistent. Repetition in key messages is important by all levels of leadership, and they should feel empowered to deliver them with confidence.

Colleagues want to be reassured that when they hear from their CEO/HRD, or any other leader, that the importance of being able to see them on video should not be underestimated. They will want to understand that there is a plan and action is being taken, even if the message being delivered is not necessarily good news. A video call shows humility and transparency and can bring clarity and warmth to people. Each organisation will need to work out what is the right cadence, be it weekly or bi-weekly broadcasts for example. Stick with this routine and increase if needed.

The tone of the broadcast from leaders needs to be a consideration each time. They need to be tuned into the context of what is happening, both in the organisation and in the wider community and economy. It is still fine to have humour but be sensitive and mindful to each situation.

Email and text also have a place. Following up a broadcast message with an email creates even greater consistency and clarity. Providing links and easy access to guidelines, toolkits and ways of working will make employees feel reassured they have what they need.   

Another important point to note, is that it is OK if leaders don’t have all the answers, but it isn’t OK to not say anything. Leaders need to face into something even if they can’t give guarantees or the answers; they shouldn’t come across as chaotic but be calm and seen to be making sensible decisions when needed.

Two-way communication can be introduced for Q&As at the end of a broadcast. The Very Group uses Slido, which is a Q&A and polling platform for meetings and events. Mentimeter is a similar platform that Berwick Partners have used. It creates a feeling of team spirit and feeling connected, whilst enabling employees to have a chance to ask questions (anonymously if they wish). Organisations could also have smaller team meetings, where people may feel more comfortable to ask questions around some of the broadcasted messages and allow discussions to take place. Virtual away days, and idea forums between different groups of people, not necessarily in your direct team, may also create a platform for ideas.

Finally, try and celebrate wins and success at any level or area of the business; this is important to keep morale and engagement up. Helen stressed that organisations should be stepping up and equipping their colleagues in ways they haven’t had to before.

Most importantly, Helen recommends that organisations should authentically connect all their communications back to their values, purpose and mission. Leaders need to ensure they can keep their culture through new ways of working and think about how to reflect their values in the ’new normal’. By ensuring you are as open with colleagues as possible and letting them feel they have a voice, in return, leaders will see the core values still play through despite the uncertain times we are all experiencing.

Amelia Black is a Consultant in Berwick Partners’ HR Practice.

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