Recently, I wrote about a college in my hometown that did a crappy job communicating to its students and the community about how the organization was changing. In the private emails and comments I've received since, it looks like I only scratched the service on the depth of the communication failure. Employees of the college indicate that practically no effort was made to communicate the profound changes ahead.
This reminded me of a core tenant of crisis communications. As much as possible, the first imperative of crisis communications is to let your employees know what is going on. In the case of a sudden tragedy like an explosion or fire, there may not be time to make a separate effort to reach out to employees first - which is understandable, but in all other circumstances, you owe your employees the special effort of reaching out to them first when communicating bad news.
Here is the order in which bad news should be delivered in an organization (unless it's an emergency):
- Executive leadership
- Communications team
- Board of directors
- Senior leadership
- Customers and vendors
- The media
Ideally, there will be a communications professional on your executive team. They are trained to advise the rest of the organization on how to cascade messaging to others. There's a reason the media is last on my list. Employees should NEVER hear bad news first from the media. Also, it makes sense to communicate with leaders from the top down. That way, if employees have any questions about their employment status or any other details, they can ask their manager.
The best way to deliver bad news is in person. That makes perfect sense in a small organization where it can be done all at once. In larger organizations, it becomes more complicated - but it is never ok to skip this step. An effort must be made to tell as many people as possible face to face. Video would be a great option in large, matrixed organizations.
Even an email to all employees is better than reading the bad news on a news website.
Employees are the ambassadors of your brand. If you proactively communicate with them, they will help you get the correct messages out. If you ignore them - the exact opposite will happen. Incorrect and sometimes damaging information will be shared with wild abandon - and in the vacuum - rumors will fly.
Every organization should have a crisis communication plan for the inevitable day when bad news will come. Skipping this step is a sign that your organization does not take the well-being of your employees and customers seriously.