by Tanja Tatomirovic
One of the things I learned in childhood was not to accumulate material goods, because, as my parents taught me, in that case, I would not recognize the value of any of those specific things.
In my work, as well as in crisis communications, in which I have been engaged for certainly more than a decade, I have recognized the principle of sufficiency. When I worked in the petrochemical industry, where people’s lives were endangered every day, as well as in the much more benign crisis of Eutelsat satellite failure, I recognized that it’s only the v-team that needs to know as much as possible, but not all the information is required at all times to be shared with a wider internal audience within the company.
Today, in an age when we have a need to have intensive internal communication, and every day we have new information packed in different ways and for different audiences, and based on my experience so far, I think we need to keep the basic rules. Not to create panic by communication, nor to communicate anything that might, under normal circumstances, need to be brought to light.
SIMPLICITY IS THE KEY
Gather all available information and group it by topic. Give communication channels simple names that will be remembered by all, and that will not arouse the aversion or opinion of employees that this is completely irrelevant in times of crisis. The language of communication should be simple, much simpler than usual when the business is as usual. Things need to be simplified in times of any crisis. In every sense.
CHOICE OF COMMUNICATION CHANNELS
Try to communicate all relevant business information, as well as important employee-related decisions, on one channel — website, Yammer, Microsoft Teams channels, or intranet, without overwhelming people with a bunch of emails, presentations, links. It’s easier to find a topic online, in one place than in Inbox. It’s easier to comment online than to reply-all and “chat” via email. “OK,” “Sure!” or similar phrases should be kept to a minimum in reply-all emails. Also, try to avoid creating similar communication channels. Do not copy content that already exists on another site — no need to duplicate. One is better than countless.
In crises, especially if you are in such for the first time, try to make decisions grouped, communicated at once or in a minimal number of emails, as each email on a sensitive topic brings stress to its very existence, not just by the volume of content. Nobody would like to have stress after stress for days. Do not send messages to all employees more than once a week, or at most twice, in case of an urgent crucial decision or information to be shared quickly. Aside from weakening the importance of messages, you may no longer have anything to communicate in the coming period. Some necessary actions or important news can easily be ignored, lost in the plethora of information you share every day or hour.
THE RIGHT SENDER AND THE RIGHT AUDIENCE
Gather information about your business successes despite the crisis, group them, add the numbers, the facts, the real success behind it, and send it to the right audience. The employees will certainly be pleased if you put management in the Cc of this e-mail so that the voice can be heard further, and the effort and result achieved in times of crisis when the work is demanding, gain importance. Make sure you always know the audience and clearly identify the sender of the message to a broader audience. Not all employees need to be always there, nor must the CEO send all the messages. Allow the leaders of specific segments to send a message and be endorsed or praised by the CEO.
If you are already communicating via email and it is a custom in your company, try to be fair. This is especially important in times of crisis and intense stress and anxiety. If you reply-all on one topic, try doing the same on another subject, perhaps of less importance to you, but as a way of motivating your team members to do even better. Your answer, especially if you are a manager, can be vital for further initiatives. If you only respond to business results, and you neglect other achievements in marketing, CSR, or simply your team members’ initiatives, you probably risk killing commitment and motivation.
ALIGNMENT AND RELEVANCE OF INFORMATION
Remember that any communication that goes to a larger group of employees must be coordinated with the crisis v-team. You also need to check the relevance of each information and not communicate anything outside your own business domain. If it is a business success that you have heard from colleagues or received information as input through the form through which you collect such information, go to the leader of that segment to inquire about the details. Not all information is always relevant. They come from different sides, with different interpretations. We need to double-check every, especially in times of crisis, when we humans are prone to extremes — to dramatize the situation, but also to beautify reality in order to mitigate the crisis seemingly.
And, if there is a rule for communication to be approved, that means you would have to get approval then, even for your opening statement. In companies that have communications professionals, rely on them. They may play with your style, grammar, or punctuation, but they will do it to make you look and sound better and more relevant.
OPENNESS AND EMPATHY IN COMMUNICATION
In crises, especially if they have a more significant impact on the business or future of employees, all senses are sharper than usual. Try to answer any questions your employees ask you through any communication channel. Stick to consistent attitudes and statements, but make sure you don’t sound like a corporate machine throwing out approved corporate statements. Show empathy, share your own mistakes, learnings, feelings; don’t play Superman. Be as open as possible. And, very importantly, don’t make the usual comments about success, accidental mistakes, or failures. A crisis is not a regular state of consciousness. A crisis is a time when, as a leader, you should be a human being above all. (You should be one even when there is no crisis.)
During each crisis, no matter how big and impactful it could be, employees are looking to leaders for guidance and clarity. Whether or not employees are scared, they have a right to be worried about the future and need to be met with compassionate responses, clearly and openly. And with reasonable frequency.
The statements [or testimony] I offer today represent my own personal views. I am speaking for myself and not on behalf of my employer, Microsoft Corporation.