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When a Crisis Strikes, Internal Audiences Matter Most

In 2020, nearly every communicator was consumed with crisis response. The constant demand for communication was especially intense for public-sector PR professionals, who were thrust into the spotlight while helping their organizations provide information to communities about COVID-19. 

As if that work were not demanding enough, we found ourselves simultaneously tasked with communicating crucial information to our most important stakeholders — the people we work with and manage.

In the public sector, a lack of internal communication often leads to poor external communication, which can inflict as much damage on the organization as it does to brands and companies. Our employees are frontline ambassadors to the communities we serve, so communicating with them during a crisis is a priority. 

This past year offered many lessons in how to manage a crisis. Here are five from the public sector that apply to everyone in our profession who communicates to an internal audience.

Act quickly.

As emergency declarations about COVID-19 went public and offices dispersed into telework, it quickly became evident that our leadership’s immediate task was to quell fear and uncertainty among employees. Those who had never worked remotely before needed to know how to make the transition, how to complete their public-facing tasks in the virtual world and how their workplace would help them adjust to the “new normal.” People had lots of questions.

To help our employees succeed during these trying times, we had to quickly get ahead of rumors and speculation and provide consistent updates to help them feel confident and secure. Just like the public we serve, our internal staffs needed to know we were addressing the situation for them.

Our organization immediately set up a website portal where employees could find updates about office closures, new information from health experts and an FAQ section. The site continues to evolve as news of the pandemic becomes available. 

In a crisis, we learned, employees want concrete steps and direction they can follow. They need information that will empower them. For us, acting quickly also entailed assessing the technology our employees would need to transition to remote work and communicating with them about related logistics.

These actions also communicated to employees the larger point that they matter as much as our external audience does. Creating a portal of two-way information was our first step in communicating the changes that the coronavirus pandemic was forcing upon our organization. We learned that we had to issue consistent updates as the crisis unfolded. 

Be consistent.

As our employees settled into their new remote-work sites, being scattered also meant they had less face time with their management and direct reports. Developing a consistent internal-communications plan became a priority.

We established biweekly and sometimes daily updates from the C-suite that addressed the changes occurring during the pandemic. These updates helped employees make informed decisions by giving them office information, addressing their mental-health needs and providing resources about child care and staying healthy. The consistent updates also let employees know where to get tested for COVID-19, how to attend virtual wellness seminars and who to call for emotional support. 

The consistency of the information made employees feel that they were being given the information they needed to make informed decisions about their work and home life. 

Updates from the C-suite were also opportunities to demonstrate our “we’re all in this together” spirit. 

Don’t sugarcoat bad news.

When the pandemic surged and deaths mounted, our most difficult task was to acknowledge this reality and communicate the grim statistics to our workforce. It was important that we not sugarcoat the news or the challenges that lay ahead. By providing raw, honest updates, we showed employees we were vigilant and wanted to give them the facts. Doing so also helped us manage employee expectations. 

During a crisis, we have to reimagine how we communicate. As we increased the frequency of our communication to staff, we also evaluated the information that needed to be highlighted, even when sharing that news was difficult. But by being forthright and not sugarcoating the facts, we were able to relay crucial information that employees could use to stay knowledgeable and protect themselves, their families and one another. 

Acknowledge mistakes.

As professional communicators, we know that transparency is a golden rule of crisis management. During the past year, we also applied this openness to our internal communications. For us, being genuine during the pandemic has meant sharing information that people need, while also acknowledging that this is an unprecedented crisis which has no rule book.

In communicating with staff, we kept the door open to feedback. We conceded the organization’s mistakes and asked employees for suggestions on how to improve. It was important for us to ask for patience with the changes taking place in the organization and to admit that we didn’t always have the answers.

Such transparency helped us offset any breakdowns in communication and improve internal perceptions of our organization for the long run.

Highlight positives.

During 2020, it seemed that more bad news arose than most people could process. That’s why we also used our internal communication channels to offer hope. Even amid the raging pandemic, many silver linings were hidden in plain sight.

Good news we highlighted included the technological gains our organization had made for its workplace, that employees were learning new skills remotely and that we were improving services to constituents by making them available online.

We also continued to communicate our appreciation to internal stakeholders and assure them of their roles in our mission, vision and values. 

By communicating all of it — the biggest lesson was that investing in our internal communications will always equate to happy constituents and customers when the community feels the value of an organization that has employees who have a true stake in what they’re doing and have the information they need.  

About the Author

Brenda Duran is a strategic communications executive for the LA County Board of Supervisors.