Crisis corporate communications: Dos and don'ts

Uncertainty and isolation make it more important than ever to be seen, to be heard and to listen.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 14 Jul 2020

There’s a way to communicate with your staff; and there are ways not to. The coronavirus epidemic is showing us the best of both. Tim Martin, the much-maligned boss of pub chain JD Wetherspoons, is a pretty strong example of what not to do. 

In a video to the firm’s 43,000 UK staff, a beverage-wielding Martin advised that they would not be paid after their last day of work until the company had worked out the government’s furlough leave package (this was after initially refusing to close pubs).  Although he probably meant it as a candid summary of the situation, Martin also suggested his staff should accept a job at a supermarket if they were offered one. 

Unsurprisingly the message met with a furious response, with workers accusing the chain of “having no regard for the financial and mental wellbeing of their staff”. The chain’s Crystal Palace pub was also vandalised. JD Wetherspoon has since said that employees will be paid 80 per cent of their wages, but the damage has already been done. 

At the best of times internal communications have a reputation for low engagement and high spin. But in the midst of the ever-changing coronavirus crisis they are taking on a new importance as bosses attempt to communicate with staff on an almost daily basis. 

Get it wrong and morale can rapidly sag, with workers feeling disengaged, further isolated or even nervous about their future employment. 

“Normally one of the key problems with internal communications and the reason why they're so badly supported by employees, is that they’re used to loudspeaker the company line or just what lawyers allow bosses to say,” says Giles Gibbons, founder and CEO of consultancy firm Good Business.

“Leaders have to realise we’re in an incredibly different moment here. This is affecting people’s personal fears and anxieties as individuals.”

Those who recognise their own humanity and find an emotional and intellectual connection with their staff are more likely to get through this period, Gibbons adds.  

Contrast Martin’s response with that of new Pret a Manger CEO Pano Christou. When faced with the same prospect of closing stores early in the pandemic, his short statement on the firm’s website started first by thanking staff, then the phrase “Pret’s first value is Happy Teams, Happy Customers and my priority is always to protect our teams as much as we can.”

Unsurprisingly Christou has faced none of the backlash directed at Martin. 

Internal communications need to tell people what they need to know, feel authentic, treat people as human beings, and give staff the ability to interact and ask questions. Balance and frequency are also important, highlights Gibbons. Too little and staff will feel uneasy and disconnected; too much risks either putting them off or drowning them in too much worrying information. 

Firms should try to vary how they communicate through a mixture of intranet updates, email, video messages and even more informal platforms like Whatsapp to speak with staff. 

Gibbons points out that middle managers or other members of the executive team can also be reassuring conduits of company updates. 

However it is not just about what you say, warns Richard Phillips a former BBC journalist and now communications coach. Where and how you say it are just as important - especially when it comes to pre-recorded or live video updates. 

You may be working from home, says Phillips, but there should be a clear separation between working from home and being at home. “Make sure everything around you reflects what you want to say - it is about the covert messages you are sending out”

If a boss wants to present a calm, controlled front then avoid pyjamas, leaning back in the chair and backgrounds featuring messy kitchens, unruly children or barking dogs. Instead bosses should opt for plain backgrounds or something that reflects their message - Phillips uses the example of a political correspondent sitting in front of a bookshelf. 

“Remember to sit forward and make sure that the lighting you’re choosing helps your message. If a boss is talking in a public or broadcast interview do not allow your eyes to leave the camera,” says Phillips. 

Gibbons is more sympathetic when it comes to background distractions. “Within the last week I’ve had numerous conference calls where people have been sitting in cupboards or where children have been climbing on computers. It’s actually brought everyone to a much more human level. We’re having to accept that we’re not automatrons. You’re seeing everyone, warts and all.” 

Ultimately getting it right all comes down to tone, says Chris Salt, CEO of comms firm Headland, and that is often the most challenging thing for a boss to master. 

“You must first try to imagine all of your staff’s circumstances. Some will be in a good place, some won’t. So you have to find that level between calmness, assuredness, optimism and humour,” says Salt. 

Under rapidly changing and deeply stressful circumstances, a company may not get this perfect every time, but they should never stop communicating.

Image credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / Contributor via Getty Images

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