May 19 2016 6 min read
When a crisis strikes employees can be your best defence

At some point an organisation will face reputational damage caused by a crisis. A crisis can come about as a result of a firm’s own actions, as we saw last year with Volkswagen, or alternatively through collective industry failure, and as observed during the banking crisis. A crisis can be prompted by association too – with the horse meat scandal of 2013 enveloping many organisations following the initial aftermath.

When the vultures are circling, managing and maintaining customer commitments while running a successful business is a tough ask. In such a situation it is easy to lose track of priorities very quickly. How an organisation responds to a crisis will have a significant impact on its future as it attempts to manage and communicate with a diverse multitude of stakeholders, all with different prioritises and agendas, while all being interlinked.

When a crisis lands most communications experts will inform their clients that they need to be humble and set a human tone. Organisations that are seen as faceless or fail to connect with society by setting this human tone are nearly always punished. Many investment banks that faced huge reputational challenges during the financial crisis, failed to express a sufficient degree of humility or show off their human side. Remember the infamous great Vampire Squid article from Rolling Stone?

So how does an organisation credibly establish a human tone while expressing believable humility? One such strategy, which is sometimes overlooked or shot down by lawyers, is to utilise those closest and those, that in most crisis situations, feel a natural tendency to defend the organisation in crisis; employees.

Society and wider societal influencers are frequently angry with corporates and ‘overpaid’ or ‘fat-cat’ management teams during crisis situations, but they rarely express anger towards those seen as committed employees. In fact, in many crisis situations effectively managed and committed employees can often become the hero and, as we all know, every good story needs a hero.

Additionally, by placing employees at the forefront of proactive communications there is the potential positive knock-on effect of reducing management exposure, providing a degree of refuge in the storm, granting valuable extra time to allow management teams to focus on the issues at hand.

But simply passing communication responsibilities to employees without clearly defined lines of responsibility is a recipe for further problems. There is a need for a strategic approach, establish proactive communication themes beyond the crisis issue, and identify and train those employees that are to become external face of the organisations, most likely for the first time.

Done right, the impact is not to be underestimated and not just for an organisations external reputation. Utilising employees and their stories during a crisis has benefits for internal audiences, it builds a sense of belonging and camaraderie, and it’s far more believable than consuming such stories through internal channels that are of course considered to be unconsciously biased. Put simply, employees are far more likely to believe what they read about their company in the newspaper than if they were to read such an article on the company intranet page.

Some organisations have done it well, some are yet to make the jump and place the required level of faith in their employees. CNC experienced both sides and in the majority of cases we remain convinced that employees are an organisation’s best asset, especially when a crisis strikes.