Internal communications after a crisis

During a recent conversation with an old friend who used to work at BP I was struck by something he said about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The people I feel really sorry for are the employees.  I can imagine how they are feeling – they will be devastated and right in the front line of public anger and outrage.”

I had not thought about this before.  With news pictures of struggling birds, ruined coastlines and destroyed businesses, you tend not to focus on the engagement of the employees of the company that is perceived to have caused the problem.

My friend was not downplaying the impact of the tragedy on fishermen, residents, visitors and wildlife.  His point however was that thousands of people working for BP across the world – people who care about their company, the environment and their reputation – face an overnight transformation in how others see them, and maybe how they see their company.

One of the hidden costs in this tragedy will be the morale and motivation of these BP people, and alongside all the other costs the company faces one suspects a large increase in employee turnover is inevitable.

There is not much research that has been done in this field.  Conclusions of what has been done are not surprising.  It suggests:

  • Employees experience trauma and stress as a result of organisational disasters
  • There is little public sympathy or recognition of this
  • Employers who retain their people tend to display more compassion and put in place support programmes for their people
  • The practical nature of this support can be time off, counselling, improved communication to respond to high information needs generated at times of uncertainty
  • Climates with strong internal teamwork and where people have reacted to crisis situations together before fare much better

So in the aftermath of perhaps the worst environmental disaster we should not lose sight of the victims of the incident within the company and perhaps ask ourselves:

  • Have we developed the crisis plans we may need (remember the Time Magazine CEO Survey in which 89% agreed that “A crisis is as certain as death and taxes.”)
  • Do those plans mitigate some of the employee costs that may be associated with the aftermath of a severe shock?
  • What internal communication and support may our people need alongside our plans to support customers and other affected stakeholders?

Mike Pounsford

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