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Communicating with employees during a time of tragedy.

Communicating with Employees During a Time of Tragedy

Fast, think of crisis communication. What comes to mind? Appoint a single spokesperson to talk to the press. Give the media the facts, not speculation. Set up an emergency newsroom.

Wait a minute. Aren't we forgetting someone? For nearly every type of crisis that can strike an organization, there are two key publics to consider. Yes, the media is one of them, the one that is critical to the company's public survival. But, what about employees, the public that is critical to the company's internal recovery and, in many cases, the public most affected by the disaster?

In Management Review, December 1985, Harold Burson, chairman of Burson-Marsteller observed: "In the thick of a crisis, a company can easily overlook special audiences that need to hear its message, because it is focusing attention on the media. Inside the company, these audiences include employees directly affected by the crisis and their families, corporate executives, plant and division managers and supervisors, the sales force, union representatives, and medical and security personnel."

When ESL, a subsidiary of TRW based in Sunnyvale, Calif., came face-to-face with crisis on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 1988 the company indeed focused attention on the media. However, the 24-year-old defense firm also recognized the need to focus attention on communicating, in the worst of circumstances, with its 2,600 employees.

On that day, at approximately 3 p.m., Richard Farley, a former employee, allegedly armed himself with close to 100 pounds of weapons and ammunition and forced his way into the engineering firm's M5 building, where a woman worked whom he had reportedly harassed for several years. The path of destruction through the engineering and administrative facility left seven employees dead, five others injured, and other employees in mourning.

During Farley's six-hour siege, important facts were not available to the police or the company. There were more questions than answers. ESL's corporate communication department initially responded, by necessity, in knee-jerk fashion. ESL Communication Manager Robert Such led a team that included three other professionals from the communication department and TRW Defense Systems Group Public Relations Manager Edie Cartwright. Cartwright was appointed the company's single spokesperson. She met reporters that night on the steps of the company's executive office building (M1) half a mile from building M5.

To reduce confusion, all callers (employees, citizens, media representatives) seeking information were routed to one telephone number. ESL President Robert Kohler explained the few grim facts that were known at that time to employees gathered in building M1. They had been unable to get to their cars because of police barricades around the ESL compound.

Once Farley had surrendered to police, the hallways in Building M1 emptied, and communication personnel worked through most of the night to formulate the communication portion of an overall crisis management plan. At 7:30 a.m. the next day, company executives agreed on the actions to be taken by the human relations, security, facilities, finance and communication departments. The actions planned that morning, along with those that had been taken the day before, tracked the company's standing crisis management plan with a few exceptions.

The objectives that all supported were to restore the company to normal operations as quickly as possible, while allowing sufficient time for outlets for grief, and to meet the needs of victims, the families of the victims, and employees.

Meeting Employees' Needs in the First Few Days The full-scale employee communication effort began minutes after the early-morning meeting was over. A memo from President Robert J. Kohler was distributed directly to the desks of all employees. It began, "I am shocked and deeply sorrowed by the terrible tragedy that happened here yesterday, as I know all of you are. I want to give you as many facts as I can at this time." Kohler outlined what had happened, provided information about onsite counseling services and announced that he would meet with all employees at 10:30 that morning.

Having earlier met with employees from M5, Kohler announced the names of the deceased at the meeting for all employees. Management decided early to tell employees as much as possible as quickly as possible.

In the next few days, information on the company's response to the tragedy was conveyed to employees through a range of vehicles. More memos were distributed directly to employees' offices. Timely announcements, including daily updates on where and when funeral services were being held, were posted on bulletin boards in each of the company's Sunnyvale-area buildings. A special issue of the company's weekly paper, ESL in Brief, included stories on the sympathy expressed by the public, coworkers' memories of the deceased employees, plans for a memorial service and a memorial fund, the efforts of a professional counseling service, and the condition of hospitalized employees.

A hotline for distressed employees and family members was set up and staffed by the human relations department with assistance from Concern: EAP (Employee Assistance Program), a counseling agency under contract with ESL since 1983 to provide employee assistance. Concern counselors arrived at ESL within an hour after the violence erupted on Feb. 16 and continue to provide onsite counseling for months afterward. Said ESL Human Relations Director Annette Rogers, "It really helped to already have a relationship established with Concern. While it would have been helpful to have any counselors, it was good to have people here we already knew."

Said Elinor Sheldon, clinical coordinator for Concern, "The immediate response in any type of crisis situation is essential."

She continued, "Victims need many levels of support according to the level of shock and intensity the event brings. They need to ventilate, talk, cry, relate the event over and over as they work to understand it and make it real for themselves."

Concern also served as a valuable feedback mechanism for communicating employees' needs and concerns to management. Based on their discussions with employees and past experience in dealing with crisis situations, Concern counselors advised the company on aspects of the employee communication program. "Management needs to take charge, be strongly visible and communicate with employees, even when there is little information available to communicate," Sheldon said. "It is amazing what people do with their fantasies. Even if someone in authority gets up and shows there is some control and says, `I don't have any information right now, but just as soon as I do you'll have it,'--you can't imagine how reassuring that is."

"Crises bring with them unclear, uncertain periods, particularly in the early stages," notes J. David Pincus and Lalit Acharya in "Employee Responses to Organizational Crises: Implications for Communication Strategies," a paper presented to IABC's Educator Academy in June 1988.

They continue: "Employees' needs for information directly from management are greatest during those highly uncertain times. Managements too often mistakenly hesitate in sending any messages to employees because they do not have all the relevant information."

Helping Employees Recover During the Following Week

In response to requests from employees for more details on what had happened in building M5, Kohler called another meeting for all employees during the week following the incident. Hundreds of employees listened, some weeping, as the president and other managers shared their personal recollections of the violent and tragic events of Feb. 16. Management had responded to a similar request from employees the week before. Concern counselors indicated that seeing the inside of the building before it was completely repaired was important to the recovery process for some employees. The company complied, allowing employees to walk through the bullet-pocked hallways and offices to help them come to grips with the reality of what had happened.

Nine days after the tragedy, a memorial service was held outside the building where the shooting occurred.

"While this is the worst tragedy in ESL's 24-year history, the ESL family is closer today than it ever has been," Kohler told those attending--nearly all of the company's Sunnyvale employees. He continued, "People have been helping each other beyond belief, working to help people and repair facilities until they nearly drop from exhaustion and exhibiting a love for each other that is only evident in a real family. At ESL we are a family, and we love and care about all of our family members, in particular the ones we are honoring today."

Survey Shows Overall Satisfaction with Communication To find out how well the company's communication efforts in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy met employees' needs, a survey was conducted by the authors in April. The study was designed to ascertain what, if any, change took place in the level of satisfaction with employee communication at ESL prior to and immediately after the tragic events of Feb. 16.

The 11-question, one-page survey was distributed to the company's 2,492 employees in Sunnyvale; 1,174 people, or 47 percent of the population, responded. The survey found that employees were generally satisfied with the amount of information normally provided by the company and that they generally perceived an increase in the amount of information provided in the aftermath of the crisis. A total of 86 percent of the 1,174 employees who responded indicated that they were either satisfied (37 percent) or very satisfied (49 percent) with the company's employee communication following the tragedy.

Seventy-seven percent of the respondents were non-supervisory, non-managerial employees; 23 percent were managers or supervisors. Sixty-three percent were male. Equal numbers of respondents were under 35 years (39 percent) or between 35 and 49 years (40 percent). Twenty-one percent were age 50 or older. Seventy percent of the respondents worked in ESL's main complex, where the incident took place, rather than in a satellite facility; and 91 percent reported that they had been at work on Feb. 16.

More than 90 percent of the respondents indicated that the company provided a great deal of (48 percent) or an adequate amount of (43 percent) information. The company was rated even higher, 93 percent, for providing credible (41 percent) or very credible (52 percent) information. Eighty-nine percent of the respondents said that the information was timely (49 percent) or very timely (40 percent).

Sixty percent of the respondents gave a positive rating for the amount of information "normally" provided through meetings with management and 80 percent for "the two-week period following Feb. 16." Positive ratings for bulletin boards went from 47 to 60 percent; for memos from 60 to 75 percent. Positive ratings for the weekly publication, ESL in Brief, were steady in both cases at 79 percent. Positive ratings for "your supervisor" dropped from 60 percent "normally" to 47 percent during the two-week period. (The decrease may be attributed to the fact that most communication following the crisis went directly from upper management to all employees. A formal mechanism was not set up to pass information down to employees through supervisors.)

ESL has periodically surveyed its employees about company practices, including communications, and the April questionnaire was designed so that response options were consistent with working in earlier ES surveys. In 1986, 47 percent of the respondents to an all-employee survey indicated that ESL did a good to very good job of providing information about the company to its employees. Another 37 percent felt the effort was average. The grapevine was the primary source of information. Employees called for more communication from management and supervisors. Company publications came closest to meeting employee communication needs.

In 1983, more than 80 percent of those responding to a survey indicated that the company newsletter was informative and timely. The grapevine was listed as the most prominent source of information, followed in order by supervisors, employee publications and bulletin boards. These previous studies, while not conducted during a period of crisis, offer a benchmark for current and future research about the company.

Challenge Continues When tragedy struck ESL on Feb. 16, 1988, the company responded to the media and to its employees. It had a team of professional employee communicators and an overall crisis plan in place. The company chose to respond internally quickly and completely, communicated through several different channels, and supported the communication with counseling and other services.

The crisis is long past, but the employee communication challenge has not ended. Principally through the weekly newsletter, the company is keeping employees informed of the criminal proceedings.

Managing Employee Communication Crucial During Crisis

No organization is immune to crisis. No organization can predict with certainty the deranged gunman, the arsonist, the neutral disaster. Yet chances are that once in communicator's career disaster will strike. Fortunately, even severe crises can be managed if the company plans in advance.

In the wake of well publicized crises such a Tylenol, Nestle, Union Carbide's Bhopal facility, and the Challenger space shuttle, our communication consciousness has been raised. However, according to Western Union's research, only slightly more than half of America's major companies have crisis communication plans. The figure for smaller companies is estimated to be significantly lower. Still, we've seen the laundry lists of how to handle the media in a crisis: Establish a news headquarters and appoint a single spokesperson...Tell the truth...Take corrective action...and so on.

But what about that internal public that we claim is so crucial to our organization's success? Somehow, during a crisis, the employees can easily be overlooked.

From the disaster at ESL, we can determine that there is no substitute for a positive company image among employees prior to a crisis. Open communication channels, credible managers, effective supervisors and established internal media all take on added importance during a crisis.

At ESL management became more important than ever as an information source, while supervisors were viewed as inadequate information sources. Channeling all communication directly from senior management placed an added burden on the CEO, and bypassed the supervisors who should have been more fully in the loop. A credible newsletter was an effective tool, however unfamiliar channels such as a hotline proved less successful. The grapevine remained strong and employees involved in the incident also turned to the media for information.

Thus certain strategies can be generalized from studying the shooting incident at ESL: . Management must be committed to candid, honest, timely information. . An overall crisis policy is essential, and should be practiced. . Key personnel should be identified, briefed and trained to handle an emergency. . Use established internal media which have demonstrated success. If new media are introduced, familiarize employees thoroughly. . Strive for decentralized communication, using employee opinion leaders or other sources close to the rank and file, in cooperation with management, to reduce top-down flow of information and to deal with variance in employees' information processing capabilities during a crisis. . Evaluate messages for clarity, consistency, and relevance to what employees need to know, rather than what management thinks they should know. . Support the communication with counseling and other services.

Nearly all employees will be involved when crisis hits an organization. Managing employee communication during crisis may the be most important factor in mitigating damage.

Crisis Planning: Two New Books

Despite all the horror stories in the business news, many companies and their executives are still abysmally unprepared for serious trouble. Many palm off crisis planning to the communication department and then forget to ask what became of it. Two new books on the subject of crisis communication can help create the degree of prepardness every organization should have.

"Communicating When Your Company Is Under Siege." by Marion Pinsdorf, is a battle-tested guide for managers. Pinsdorf combines experience as a journalist, corporate officer and member of Amfac Corporation's board of directors. She has spent 20 years in the trenches at several major corporations and as a vice president at Hill and Knowlton. Published by D. C. Heath and Co., Lexington Books, Lexington, Mass, 20173. Price is US $21.95.

Another new book on crisis communication is called, "No Surprises, the Crisis Communication Management System," by Bart Mindszenthy, T.A.G. Watson and William Koch. These authors are veteran counselors and corporate communicators. The book is in three-ring binder format and comes with dozens of forms and checklists, both printed and on computer disk. Published by Bedford House Publishing Ltd., Toronto, Ont. M5R 2K2. 416/963-4300. Price is US $195.
COPYRIGHT 1989 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles on communication management
Author:Briggs, William
Publication:Communication World
Date:Feb 1, 1989
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