Crisis communication

Internal communication in times of crisis – interview with Shelley Hoppe

By 29th March 2020 No Comments

How can you make sure that your internal communication strategy has the right impact in a crisis? And how can you encourage your employees to support the business during this difficult time? Shelley Hoppe, our Agency Director in London, is an internal communications expert. Here she offers her invaluable insights and advice in relation to the coronavirus crisis.

How should companies use internal communications to reassure their employees during a crisis?
“Companies should continue to operate as they usually do and sending out an announcement from the CEO and other senior leaders, posting official guidance about how to behave and updating company policy information on their intranet. But these are ‘hygiene measures’, which in this context is nothing to do with handwashing but is basically the bare minimum businesses need to do.”

How can a more meaningful impact be made?
“What will make these messages a lot more powerful is to hear them regularly backed up by humans. In other words, the most senior people in companies should be empowering their teams to personally ’cascade’ these messages down in one-to-one conversations with their teams, and to offer additional flexibility and support where possible. Those receiving the messages should also be encouraged to cascade them and so on, creating a culture of understanding and support.”

Can you give an example of this in practice?
“In a recent conference call with one of our corporate clients, we were discussing some tight project deadlines we were working towards. Halfway through the meeting, the most senior person on the call said: “I just want to reiterate the messages that have recently gone out from our CEO – if any of you, including our suppliers on the call, are having any issues that you feel may impact these deadlines, do feel free to speak up. We’re all facing big challenges together, so if we need to allow for that in the timeline, then that is what we will do.” There is nothing that beats the feeling of having this message reinforced regularly by senior colleagues in a variety of forums. It’s very powerful.”

Which communication channels work best?
“It really depends on the context of your business. The most important thing to do is to tailor both your messages and your delivery channels to the audience you are talking to. If you’re talking to desk-bound office workers, then emails, virtual meetings and intranet announcements are fine, as long as they are combined with – and reinforced by – more personal conversations with line managers and teams. However, if your team are delivery people who are on the move, or shelf stackers, or in food preparation or service, then you need to tailor your channels to them. These types of audiences can often be better reached by apps on their mobile phone – Workplace by Facebook is an excellent option – as well as simple team WhatsApp groups and audio communications like podcasts, for example, that employees can listen to while on the go.”

How can a company boost morale during a crisis?
“Whichever channels are right for your audience, remember that they shouldn’t always be used for formal business communication. You must make time for fun messages or ‘watercooler moments’, where staff can meet or interact for purely social purposes, as these moments are scientifically proven to reduce stress and improve mood. Host an afternoon coffee break or a non-work-related chat or ask people to share a photo of their lunch or pet, for example. Anything that will make your employees feel connected to others on the team will help boost morale.”

What does this crisis show about the importance of internal communications?
“It really shows what a huge difference good and sincere internal communications can make. The corporate clients we work with are really leading the way as far as I can tell – acting quickly to mandate remote working to protect their teams’ health and offering flexibility and understanding. I’ve had some corporate clients tell me – almost tearfully – as they explain the personal and family challenges they are facing, how extremely grateful they are to be working for a supportive employer that understands their needs and is willing and able to be flexible to help them get through this time. Nothing will win greater loyalty and support than the feeling that your employer has done everything they can to help you. It will make you want to reciprocate – and, when this crisis is all over and behind us, it will make teams and businesses stronger and more connected.

How can employees help build the brand and the business during this difficult time?
“If you’ve truly shown support and solidarity with your team and their personal challenges, they will be open to talking about how they can help with the business challenges. Sometimes, a strong feeling of being ‘in this together’, and facing a difficult situation as a team can even be a bonding experience and, once everyone has calmed down and adjusted to the new circumstances, it could even lead to some new innovations.

Could you use some of this time for training or planning?
“Some of our clients have asked us to conduct educational webinars, for example, and encouraged their teams to use any down time they have to look for inspiration and rethink their communications strategy and planning. This could be a time to ask your team: how could our business help others with this challenge? Restaurants for example have switched to offering takeaway meals, retailers are quickly adapting to increase their online and delivery offers, and hotels are converting themselves into temporary hospitals. Remote working tools and technologies have never had so many people learn how to use their services. Look for those opportunities to evolve your business activities and help others. Who knows, it might even change your business purpose for the longer as well as the shorter term.”