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Crises: Internal communications should be every exec’s first step
For executives and communicators, navigating any social or political conflict — let alone global unrest — will be just as challenging to get right as it is important.
- That’s why you need a plan now. What we’re living through is just the start of what will undoubtedly be another challenging year as society works through generational change — and a divisive presidential election — that challenges all of our ethnicities, chosen faiths, and personal values.
Employees will continue to look to corporate leaders for answers, support, reassurance, and respect. And while they may not expect their CEO to be able to solve a global crisis, they will expect you to be a grounding and trusted voice amidst the chaos. But you cannot draw on trust you haven't built, and regularly communicating with staff to build genuine connection is key.
“For folks who feel like their heads are spinning now, it’s a good time to take a breath and make sure that they feel comfortable in their approach — because it’s going to be tested frequently,” Jordan Zaslav, Axios HQ General Manager, told Fortune.
Trust is key in crisis communications
The first step is to recognize that people connect with people, and your employees are people, too. Current events can be deeply personal, and you, as someone’s employer, play an important and significant role in their lives.
- "Unless [a conflict] impacts your business or you have something meaningful to say, don't put out a public statement," crisis communications expert Matt Wing told Axios. "Focus instead on employees and speak to your people about what you can do for them. Internal communications are invaluable."
The second step is to establish trust. Employees want to hear from you in good times and in bad. And more and more, employees are charging leaders at every level — especially the managers they interact with day to day — with being more direct.
- Create a routine. Employees need to hear from leaders regularly to really understand issues and how they may impact the business, production, and individuals.
- Be honest. It’s okay not to have all the answers, but be upfront about what you know today, what you’re still working to find out, how you can all proceed.
- Stay human. Acknowledge that individuals may have different needs during difficult times. Share what resources are available to staff and create a safe space for employees to process events.
“For CEOs and founders, there is no better time than ‘today’ to talk to your co-founder, chief of staff, or comms leader and ask: What is our playbook for ensuring employees hear from us regularly and from their more “local” divisional leaders?” Zaslav says.
Where any executive can start
Insights from 600+ leaders we’ve talked with through Axios HQ have helped us learn an important lesson: It’s OK if you feel at a loss for words. Every leader is human and needs time to absorb the situation and discover the best way to communicate during difficult times.
One simple place to begin: Launch an all-staff newsletter from your CEO. Include five things you want to highlight. Commit to communicating weekly. It will help you get more comfortable and will help your team feel connected and aligned no matter the global climate. From there:
- Share what’s essential. That could include reminders of mental health resources, shifts in programming or strategies, opportunities to connect with executives, and easy ways for employees to share and elevate their voices and perspectives.
- Collaborate with colleagues. You don’t have to do this alone. Tap your CCO, VPs, and other stakeholders to tackle these weighty communications together. Getting a variety of views better ensures you’ll approach the conflict with the care and finesse it deserves.
- Be timely and consistent. Don’t rush, but do be conscious of how much time is going by. Too much, in moments of tension, can give the appearance of unpreparedness. Too little, and you may seem rushed. Be prepared so your staff can feel prepared.
The bottom line: In a political climate that will only become more charged in the year ahead, “remember that all politics are local,” Zaslav says. “The best way to build trust is to start a conversation now, demonstrate your trust in your own teams, share a transparent look at future plans, acknowledge challenges along the way, and show humility. From there you can earn the right to address personal topics in an authentic way.”
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