Opinions about branding by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Internal Communications: An Essential Investment in Crisis Prevention

Who knows better what’s going on inside a home: The people actually living within its walls? Or the neighbors, friends, Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts?


The people living there, of course.

Same goes for an organization: Is it the employees who are best-informed? Or the customers, the investors, the regulators and the media?

There again – it is the employees, at some level, who know the story first and better than “outsiders” do.

Internal stakeholders – read employees – know what’s going on. They also care – a lot. Because their sustenance depends on things going well at work.

So it is not only stupid, but can be organizationally suicidal, to ignore what they have to say. Or to punish them for constructively and appropriately trying to communicate information that can save the organization from itself.

Going back to the family analogy: When I was a kid I lived in a house with a winding staircase. You could sit at the top of the stairs on the second floor and listen to what was going on downstairs at the base of the stairs. Without anyone seeing you.

So when my parents argued over things – like where we would live or what type of school I should go to – you can bet I was sitting there at the top of the stairs listening very hard.

Employees are exactly the same as kids in this way. Living in their parents’ (the employer’s) house. Wanting to know what’s going to be. Watching for signals that affect their safety, stability, and future.

Not every employee is passionately engaged with the mission. Not everyone cares about doing a good job. The day-to-day news affecting the organization often flies right by them. But three things worry them deeply, and those are the things you can count on them to be attentive to:

• The financial stability of the organization – is it going under?
• Their standing within the organization – is their own job in jeopardy?
• The reputation of the organization – is their own good name at risk by being associated with the organization?

If you look at these things closely, they are exactly what most CEOs are worried about as well.

And so it would be smart for leaders to get employees involved in monitoring and reporting on these matters.

Not just because it would boost morale. But because employee warnings can serve as an early alerting system to help avert crises before they blow up, real damage is done, and the mainstream and social media rake the organization over the coals.

On a practical level, obtaining this kind of feedback from employees has to be simple, real-time, and available both in-person and electronically. Standard things like an “open door” policy, town halls, two-way email feedback systems, etc. are good, but the problem is that they’re difficult to standardize, make consistent, and monitor when your organization is extremely large, complex and geographically distributed.

On the other hand, an online message board does a great job of handling this:

1) Establish a central, anonymous tipline where employees can report anything they feel is important - whether that be fraud, waste and abuse; inaccurate or slanderous news coverage; or even a process that could use improving.
2) Publish tips to a central message board where others can comment and/or vote on their usefulness. Use a moderator to filter out extremely sensitive or confidential material that doesn’t belong there, but that needs to be investigated. The moderator can also delete “spam” or slanderous tips as well as generate productive discussion in the repository.
3) Enable access to the message board for employees from home so that they have the privacy and anonymity they need to report items of importance.
4) Reward employees for submitting tips that lead to misconduct being discovered, a dangerous situation corrected, etc.
5) Train employees extensively to behave appropriately with this sensitive material. Publish a clear and simple policy that is prominently displayed.

(Of course, every organization operates within its own constraints, and you will need to check to make sure that establishing any communication tool or mechanism abides by applicable laws, regulations and rules. This blog is not a substitute for obtaining the appropriate advice.)

Executives commonly worry that providing this kind of tool will just give license to destructive people to destroy morale. But the reality is quite the opposite. Usually it is the employees who care the most about the mission, who believe the organization the most, that hold it to the highest standard of conduct and that therefore get engaged in these types of forums.

And you know what? If you don’t give people a constructive way to share the problems they see, they will find a way to do it anyway – one that the organization doesn’t control, can’t have any input into, and may well regret because things will be said that put people in a bad light without giving them an opportunity to explain and defend themselves.

It is a virtual certainty to me that 90% of the time (the other 10% being an unavoidable accident or disaster), crises can be prevented before they start.

Nuclear disasters. Oil spills. Car defects. Medicine recalls.

Could these costly crises be avoided if only the companies responsible had done a better job of getting employees to share what they know? What they are concerned about?

Could things be better if crisis identification – a.k.a. risk management – were seen as part of everyone’s job, not just crisis communicators or leadership or even supervisors?

Meaning that the “not my job” attitude and the “none of your business” attitude were effectively history?

Imagine how literally billions of dollars could have been saved rather than being washed down the drain of fighting, finger-pointing, and crisis recovery.

Most crises are not a surprise. Instead they are the result of a long-term dysfunctional pattern, process or practice. Anybody with half a brain can see them coming.

The question is whether we have eyes to see. Ears to hear. Courage to accept the nasty truth from a messenger who isn’t necessarily favored, or high in status.

All you have to do is imagine an asteroid. You want to explode it while it’s still in outer space. Rather than having it blow up the earth from under your feet.


*All opinions, as always, are my own and my comments do not represent any individual or organization.