HR Grapevine spoke to PR experts to find out how crisis handling can hurt a business...
Internal communication is a fundamental part of HR’s remit. Particularly in times of crisis and uncertainty like the coronavirus pandemic – where things are continuously changing and new information is coming out almost every day. This understanding of HR’s role is supported by Mike Shields, Head of PR at public relations firm Distract, who told HR Grapevine that internal communications play a huge role in business continuity and staff engagement.
“During this time under the shadow of the pandemic, it has been more important than ever to engage and ensure employees feel valued, informed and their mental health, in particular, has been addressed. Even if delivering bad news, sensitivity and clear, understandable language are essential. In a world where a quick screengrab or photo can mean your internal comms can leak into the public, a clear strategy and consideration need to be applied,” Shields explains.
During the pandemic, several firms have been criticised over the ways that they have delivered sensitive news to staff members. For example, Electric scooter company Bird, who reportedly laid off 406 workers in a two-minute Zoom call and a local arm of Cineworld where staff claimed they found out they had been sacked via Twitter. Perhaps the biggest example would be J D Wetherspoon. At the beginning of lockdown, several media outlets reported that the chain’s boss, Tim Martin, told staff that they would not be paid and encouraged them to “go work at Tesco”.
It sparked huge backlash from workers, unions and the public who all hit out at the chain. The decision was reversed within days but a few months down the line, The New European reported that campaigners had launched a #NeverSpoons hashtag calling for a boycott of the chain when it reopened due to its handling of staff pay in COVID-19. “The effects of poor internal comms have been seen across businesses during this time. Effectively a misstep from Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin in the early stages of the lockdown, where he advised staff to look for alternative employment in supermarkets, hasn’t gone down well and has led to some negative PR and even campaigns to boycott the chain as it reopens. It pays to be thoughtful and considered when it comes to these matters as consumers are increasingly more switched on to ethics and kindness among corporate entities and a mistake can have long-lasting effects,” Shields adds.
In addition, Charlotte Stoel, Group Director at Firefly Communications tells HR Grapevine that people have told her that “they’ve seen their employer’s true colours [during the pandemic] and once everything is more stable, they’ll leave”. The PR expert explained that in instances like these, it is clear staff have experienced a lack of communication from leaders at the top. “Leaders have stepped away, not been transparent, put people into difficult situations and not looked to understand or hear people’s concerns,” Stoel says.
Due to the fast-developing nature of the pandemic and changing Government rules, it is possible that some businesses will have put a foot wrong at some point in the crisis. While Stoel said that in such uncertain territory it is understandable that mistakes will be made, empathy is now more important than ever. “It’s tempting for leaders and HR teams to keep the tone positive whilst instilling an attitude of soldiering on. However, your people want to be levelled with as well as have that clarity and reassurance. A balance is key; it’s important to judge carefully what could be demotivating to your people, but also remember that complete surprises can be equally discombobulating. The wrong communication move won’t lead to the behavioural change you seek and may even backfire, creating a reputational challenge,” she concludes.