ICology: the role of internal communications in a crisis

Ep #10, Paul Barton with Paul Barton Communications 

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Paul Barton is a communicator by trade, but is also an educator, an author and one hell of a guitar player. His communication stops include Avnet, Hawaiian Airlines and Petsmart. Paul is also the author of "Maximizing Internal Communication." 

In this episode of ICology, we focus on crisis communication. While it's never something communicators want to happen, being prepared for a crisis is crucial to a company's success. We talk about strategies and approaches communicators can take to respond positively during a crisis. As Paul says, "Communicators need to be at their best when things are at their worst." 

Follow Paul on Twitter at @paulbartonabc.

Episode Transcript

Chuck: Welcome to ICology, the podcast dedicated to interesting people doing interesting things in the world of internal communications. In this edition, you'll hear insights on internal communications and a crisis from Paul Barton at Paul Barton Communications. If internal comms is your passion, then this is your podcast. Listen in.

Before we get into the topic today, there's a few items that I want to mention first. In early December, along with the very creative folks at Alive With Ideas, we launched the Periodic Table of Internal Communications. You can go and download your own and/or submit your own element. We recognize that just like the real Periodic Table was a work in progress, so is the Periodic Table of Internal Communications. You can download and submit at elementsofic.com. Again, that's elementsofic.com.

So, when we talk about crisis, at least I would certainly hope that nobody ever wants a crisis to hit their organization. But these crises come in many shapes, many different forms, many different flavors. And as I tend to do, I'm probably oversimplifying them a little bit, but I always put them in to two categories. There's those crises that you've brought on yourself, and then those are sort of brought to your doorstep.

An example of each that come to mind are Volkswagen, recently, and the drought in California. So Volkswagen, with their deceptive manufacturing/advertising process, they've brought that on to themselves. They did that to themselves. They developed their own crisis and had to deal with it. But then I think about the drought in California, and how that was not just a public crisis, but the crisis that would have happened within companies. Now, it's not just the public one, the one for the employees that are out there and how companies had to respond.

And then even think of the data hacks that have taken place both in the corporate and government world, and how these agencies and organizations and companies have had to respond and had more of a data crisis for those. And much of that crisis conversation, the focus takes place with the public. And the public is important. These public could be customers, these could be resident, whoever they might be, but so often, that forgotten audience is the employees. They're the ones living it every day that have tied their livelihood, their paycheck, often even their reputation to a company organization.

So in this podcast episode, we're going to talk about crisis communication from the inside, out, and how internal coms can guide employees through a crisis. So on today's show, we've got Paul Barton. Paul and I first met years ago, hopefully that won't date us, at an IABC World Conference and have gotten to know each other well ever since. He's an author. He's a teacher. He's a communicator. He's a hell of a guitar player, a big Iowa State fan, too. So, Paul, welcome to ICology.

Paul: Well, thanks, Chuck. Good to be here.

Chuck: Yep. So, what I always do to kick-start this is I like to showcase the variety of backgrounds that guests and communicators have to the audience. So why don't you quickly walk through the listeners through your internal communications experience?

Paul: Yeah, I started really in internal coms in 1996. I remember one of my first really big projects was the roll-out of Windows 95 replacing a DOS system, so that kind of dates me, as well.

Chuck: But I'm sure at the time, that was a huge change.

Paul: Oh, absolutely. It still ranks as one of the greatest change communication projects I've ever been a part of, creating the Windows survival kit for folks. That was at Arizona Public Service, the largest utility here in Arizona, which also, I believe is still the owner and operator of the largest nuclear power plant in the world. So they certainly needed to have a crisis communications plan for that. So I was involved in the update and creation of some new elements to that plan.

I moved from there to Phelps Dodge Mining and Manufacturing Company, which at the time, was the largest copper company in the world. It got bought out by an even bigger company, Freeport-McMoRan, which is a gold mining company. I then moved from there to America West Airlines, which bought out US Air and now it's become American Airlines. Believe it or not, America West was the acquiring company of those, and it's basically the same management team that I worked with. I left from there to Pet Smart, which probably, believe it or not, had more crises and incidents than any company I've ever worked for.

I then decided it might be kind of fun to go out to Hawaii. I worked for Hawaiian Airlines during a period of time. When they were expanding, I almost doubled the size of the airline with expanding routes into Japan and Korea and all over Asia. And then I came back to Phoenix to work for Avnet, which is the largest company you've never heard of. It's a Fortune...I think it's 105 now. It's a V2B business, which is why you haven't heard of it. It primarily distributes electronic parts around the world. And then I decided to strike out on my own.

Chuck: Yeah, and I'm sure that a lot of people would agree that going to Hawaii probably does sound like a lot of fun to do.

Paul: Yeah, it was a great place. I got my master's degree while I was there, and I wrote a book on the beach.

Chuck: That's a great life accomplishment right there, writing a book on a beach. So you've had this vast experience, a lot of different industries. What is it...and obviously you've got a lot of experience in different channels and technologies, but what is it about crisis communication that interests you so much?

Paul: I think crisis communication follows the same basic principles as any good employee communication. The difference is that everything gets amplified by a hundred times. And so it's just a really great opportunity to demonstrate your value to an organization. So when your company needs you the most is when you need to be at your best. It's great to see. Nobody wants a crisis to happen, but when it does, it's just great to see a really well-oiled machine respond to it.

Chuck: Well, and that's a great call to action for communicators, what you said "When your company needs you most, that's when you need to be your best," or at your best. That is a great, great call to action for communicators, honestly, at any level of their career, because you never know when a crisis might happen, and then when you might be called upon to answer to that.

So, as I mentioned in my earlier rant to kick off the show, that the crises do come in many shapes and flavors and they can happen to businesses of any size, whether it's Fortune 100 or local small business. And especially with social media, I think we're starting to define the word "crisis" maybe a little bit differently. Where we mentioned some of the examples before of the drought and Volkswagen and data hacks being crises, but then some people now see an inappropriate tweet potentially as a crisis. So, Paul, how do you define a crisis?

Paul: People can get wrapped up in is it a crisis or is it an incident? To me, it's anything that causes a significant disruption to an organization or anything that could damage its brand reputation. And that could.

Chuck: Okay, and then how do you see the...do you see social media? Is it more of a temporary crisis versus long term because people tend to forget, or do you see it being just as important as others?

Paul: Well, it's absolutely as important as others and it amplifies the time that a crisis can spin out of control. It can be much faster than it used to be, and it's an audience that needs to be responded to in a way that we haven't had to do in the past. A lot of crisis plans were developed really before social media took off, and so a lot of crisis plans don't really account for that and have procedures and things in place. Folks aren't planning and building relationships with those audiences in the way they should through a crisis. Many plans are still focused on traditional media.

Chuck: And I would imagine that that probably exists, too, because there's probably a lot of corporate leaders who maybe aren't dialed in as much. They probably recognize the old value of the press release and the press announcements and press conferences. But you're right, from a social media standpoint, it's probably time for some of those crisis plans to be dusted off and make sure they recognize that new digital world...or present digital world, I should say.

Paul: Yeah, and then it's a different cycle. I mean, social media is incredibly active over the weekend. So you can leave Friday night thinking everything's under control, and have something spin into a viral nightmare, just over the weekend.

Chuck: That's exactly right. So, as I've gone through my in-communications background, I've picked up on three phases to a crisis, just like people describe those different stages of grief. So let's say these three phases: the ending, which is like the start I guess, a neutral zone, and then the new beginning. And so what I want to do is walk through each of these and what role an internal communicator might play in that. So in the ending, there's that first phase, this is sort of letting go. This is when that crisis first happens. So what does a communicator need to do, right when either they find out about the crisis or that crisis takes place, immediately?

Paul: It's similar to the principles you would apply to a changed leadership or a changed management plan. Typically, in that plan, you would have to create a sense of urgency. Obviously, in a crisis, that sense of urgency is already there. But I think the communicator's role is helping frame and define exactly what that urgency is, for employees in particular, as to what it is the company is facing and get that framed properly.

Chuck: And then the neutral zone...well, actually, this is that in-between time. This is when everybody is not relaxed in what they're doing, but the news has gotten out to employees, to the public, people have digested it. And so now, the crisis isn't over, but it's sort of dialed back a little bit again. So what does a communicator play in this neutral zone world?

Paul: Yeah, again, looking at it from a changed communication perspective, it would be the phase you would look at creating a vision and let people know where it is you're going. It's a slightly different twist, but very similar to that in a crisis that you need to paint the picture of where you're headed, what it is you're doing to fix this. I take an approach I call the "three Hs," where I have folks first approach things from their heart and allow employees to know that how much the emotional side is important before you dive into solutions. And actually, people need to know that you care before they care what you know. I think that's equally true for employees, just as it is for external audiences.

And then from there, I move into what I call the heroism phase, where you're really talking about doing the right thing. And I think it's a key for internal audiences, as well, to know what it is the company is doing to do the right thing. And then, end with messages of hope of how we're going to get there together, and how we all need to work together.

Chuck: And then there's now the new beginning, which I guess sounds sort of very Star Wars-ish, maybe. This is sort of that moving forward. So in a crisis that everybody knows about it, people have understood what they need to do; now the changed has happened. There could be new policies, new procedures, new efforts, new leadership maybe even after a crisis. What does a communicator play in this new beginning?

Paul: Yeah, I think you need, just as you would in a changed management project...because again, this is a big change occurring in how people are working. You want to focus on what your short-term wins are to let people know there's some victories and give them encouragement to keep going. I think it's really key that you don't let up communications, that you look for those evergreen, long-term sorts of things to let people know what change needs to take place and keep reinforcing that change. And then you need to start incorporating it into the culture.

I'd like to think of it in simple terms of first, there is an awareness stage that's in our eyes, and then we begin to think and assimilate it so it's in our minds. And then we become to really adopt it, which is in our hearts. And it finally ends up, if we do it long enough, becomes a habit, and it's in our work.

Chuck: And just like I think the three Hs, I think those are a good nugget for people to take away as a reminder. In a talk I saw you give once, you provided a really helpful equation for communicators to balance out communication because in a crisis, there is a lot of negative in that. The equation you gave was 3P = 1N. So talk to the listeners about the history of this equation, what it means and why 3P = 1N, why that's important.

Paul: Yeah, it stands for three positives equal one negative. You essentially need three positive messages to help counter-balance every one negative message. It's a little nugget I picked up from a guy named Dr. Vincent Covello who runs a place called The Center of Risk Management. I've adopted a lot of his thinking and turned it into more of a communicator's way of approaching it.

You derive positives by...I do it by asking three basic questions. The first one is I ask what action is taking place because it's always better to talk about what you are doing than what you're not doing. And action could come in a lot of forms. It may be sometimes the best you can do is that we're stabilizing the situation. That might be the best you can do. But any kind of things you can talk about that are describing the action that you're taking place to recover from the crisis are good.

And then I would ask, what is the good news? And that's often difficult to find in a crisis, but there's usually something there. It could be seven people went to the hospital, three of them were treated and released, the other four are expected to make a full recovery. That might be the best that you can come up with, but look for the good news.

And then the third question I ask are who are the heroes? With an external audience, it's quite often the heroes are the first responders and you want to tell their stories of how they prevented the crisis from becoming even bigger. But there's often employees who are part of that ability to respond as a hero as well, and you want to tell their stories. Who reacted quickly and did the right thing that helped keep a crisis from growing even bigger?

Chuck: And for those communicators who have been through many different crises communication plans at events that have happened, you always learn something new about the past crisis that you carry into the next one whenever that time comes. But for those that haven't yet, there's a lot of channels that communicators have at their disposal, but what are some of the channels that maybe they haven't thought of that they need to have before a crisis? Even if they never use it other times, but what are some of those key channels or tactics that a communicator needs to have in their tool belt before a crisis hits?

Paul: Well, clearly, somebody in the company needs to create a notification system to make sure that the crisis team, as well as the general employee audience, knows what's going on. Sometimes, that's run through the safety department, but if not, the communicators are responsible for creating such a system. There's some really sophisticated systems out there now that you can purchase, but the poor man's version is really, probably a text message. And there are ways of creating email distribution lists that actually can send text messages to all the various different phone carriers that a cell phone might be on. So, that's pretty key.

I also really advocate that people create...we have a lot of templates, quite often for press releases to get those fired out immediately in the event of a crisis that's somewhat predictable. In the airline business, of course there's going to be a template for a crash that they can fill in the blanks and get that fired out quickly. But sometimes, companies forget to do that same type of template for their own employees because they want to know the information quickly, as well.

Chuck: Well, and I have a friend of mine who's a communicator, they recently had a fire at their facility and they pulled out the crisis plan, and it worked perfectly. They had...the senior leadership knew, the communication flow went to the managers, but then they left it up to the managers to be able to communicate to the employees, the front-line employees, and they realized the managers had no way of doing that.

When you talk about the value of communication audits, this is a chance for a communicator to step in and say, "If this happens...?" and just ask the question, "Do we even have the right data? Do we have the right information? Do we have the right tools available to simply notify employees that are both there on-site, as well as those that are off-site?" Because they had the issue of employees didn't know if they were on-site, if they were allowed to leave or permitted to leave. Those employees that were supposed to come to work, they didn't know if they should or not. And so managers knew and leadership knew and communicators knew, but they didn't have a way to reach that front-line employee. So this where communicators can add business value.

Paul: Absolutely. I advocate a policy; I call it the Five Ps. That stands for predict, which is predicting the most likely scenarios that can happen to you. Then, prepare for those. But the last of three Ps are practice, practice, practice. And I run into this a lot with my clients that are folks who have communication plans, they think they're pretty good. They may have even updated them occasionally, but they don't practice them.

And when you practice, you really need to carry out your plan as far as you can. So if there's a phone number on there that you're supposed to call, you can't just check it off the list. You need to actually call the number. Make sure that the number is correct. Make sure that the person on the other end of that is the right person, that you know the name, that it hasn't changed in jobs, and make sure that you can actually send the things out to the people you need to send them to.

Chuck: Well, and it's just like what we have on...it was at the Emergency Broadcast System. We hear that weird sound come across your TV and they say, "This is a test. This is only a test." They run it and then they say, "If this had been an emergency, this is how we would use it." That's a great way for communicators to practice their own crisis plans is let people know it's a test. Test it, and then let them know that it is just a test, but if it hadn't been a test, this is how we would have used this tool to keep you informed. I think that's a great way for people to take something they've already experienced, and apply it in their internal coms world.

Paul: Well, and there's two types of drills. I think you should drill at least twice a year. And one drill should be an announced drill where the purpose is just to make sure everybody knows their roles and responsibilities, knows what to do, where to go, and that everything is up-to-date. Then the second drill is really more the one about speed. Can we really contact people when we need to after hours on a weekend or whatever?

But just like all communications, the part that often is the weakness is our evaluation. And that's really what "Drill, Baby, Drill" is all about, is evaluating where you're at. And certainly, if you had a real crisis, you'd do the same thing, to have a little checklist and go in and do an evaluation of how effective your communication is. It's a great opportunity to learn and get better.

Chuck: Now, when we're talking about communicating in this crisis, and where we did the beginning, the neutral zone, the new beginning, or the ending which is our new beginning, and then 3P = 1N. So I thought it was great communication, but is there such a thing as over-communicating during a crisis?

Paul: Well, I'm going to view that as somewhat of a trick question because I'm going to define communication as the ability to not just sending messages out, but actually getting through. And under that definition, you cannot over-communicate. If you're continuing to get through with new and valuable information that helps employees respond quickly and appropriately, then you're not over-communicating. If you're sending messages out that are cluttering the information flow, then that's a different story.

Chuck: Well, because, I know that there, we talked about some of the technology and tools that are available. I know there's some that...when we're talking about a true emergency crisis where it not only emails people at multiple email addresses, it texts you and calls you at home, and it will keep doing that until it knows you've received the message somehow, some way. That's a great way of making sure you're getting your message delivered.

But then, you're right. I wonder if companies ever run the risk of over-communicating, if messages could be missed because of clutter. So, I didn't mean it to be a trick question, but you provided a great answer.

Yeah, it's a little bit back to what we're seeing now in social media. In a crisis, every minute, you could argue even, every second, counts. And there is, you would hope, typically a sense of urgency in this crisis, but talk a little bit about the tug of war between being quick and being urgent, but also being appropriate and accurate.

Paul: Yeah, well, you're under pressure. You're completely out of time. When every employee has a smartphone, it's not seconds, there is no time. And the stakes are high because if you say the wrong thing, it could really damage the company's reputation or be a legal issue. So you need to be not only quick in responding to get out in front of an issue, but you also need to have the appropriate, correct messages. And there's not one that's more important than the other.

They are both critical, and the way you do that is to go through those five Ps that you need to predict the most likely crisis scenarios and prepare for those. And then obviously, something could come up that wasn't in your top five list, but you should be able to take the things that you've developed for those top five most likely crises and easily adapt them for whatever came up that you hadn't thought about. And usually, that will give you a pretty quick and appropriate response.

Chuck: Now, another great idea that I've heard you share, which I think is really smart from that preparation standpoint, is encouraging communicators to get to know the EAP benefit within their company. And for most people, this is that employee assistance line, or that program you have that employees are having difficulties or troubles they can call.

I don't think that a lot of communicators have thought about the role that that benefit would apply in a crisis. I think most just seem to know it as a number and that evergreen content you talked about before where people share it. But there's a story you have where the EAP was really critical to your company during a crisis.

Paul: Yeah, we used it pretty extensively at PetSmart. And again, the employee assistance program is typically something run through an HR department, so you want to coordinate with those folks. But the idea is that you identify a number of things in advance as part of the preparation stage, and the EAP program is one of them.

So that you have the telephone numbers and people in place that when a crisis hits, you can easily deploy grief counselors to the scene, pretty quickly. And again, that goes back to what I was talking about of it's better to tell what action you are taking than what you're not doing. And deploying grief counselors to the scene is a great action that shows heart and care and concern to help your employees out.

I think the story that you're referring to is probably my recounting of the famous armed robber. He actually robbed a store in a shopping plaza. This was in Canada. It was nearby, but ran into a PetSmart trying to hide out. And he was wielding a knife, stabbed some people on his way to try to hide in the restroom. The Mounties came into the store and he tried to make his way out. He ended up getting gunned down in the front vestibule of the store in front of all the employees and customers saw this guy just get shot down. Several employees had actually been stabbed as he was swinging his knife wildly.

So there was a bit of shock there, but we were able to have grief counselors as well as a bunch of other things in place. But we had grief counselors on-site within about 45 minutes to talk to customers and to employees. So, this was a great way to get action.

Chuck: Yeah, that's the definition of a crisis being brought to your door. You're just there. It wasn't anything the company did other than existing in that location, nothing the employees did other than show up to work. But that really shows, again, the sophistication and care of being able to deploy that as a true benefit and as a service to employees who should never have to see such an awful thing. But the world we live in, especially now, with what we're seeing with threats being made around the world, this is a time for communicators not to step up and pump your chest and show what a great communicator you are, but what an asset you can be to your company to help them through a tragedy or crisis like that.

Paul: We actually derived that in the wake of 9/11. We thought we had a pretty good crisis plan at PetSmart, and we discovered a number of gaps that we filled in as a result of that. I think that rewrote a lot of people's crisis plans because you would think, "How could 9/11, 2000 miles away, affect corporate headquarters at PetSmart or affect a company like PetSmart?"

Well, like all big companies, we had employees who were traveling who were stranded. We had a store that sat across the street from the Pentagon that actually shook when the plane hit. And we had employees and their manager gathered in the back break room, huddled underneath a table, praying together. We had live product, including live fish and pets that were transported primarily by air cargo that were stranded on runways. So it affected us quite a bit.

And I remember distinctly, the day after 9/11, sitting with the chairman of the board of PetSmart, going through the Blue Pages of the phone book in an effort to try to find some government numbers because we wanted to step in and help FEMA with search and rescue dog teams. And we didn't even have a number for FEMA or for any government thing because we didn't think that that was ever anything that would affect us.

Chuck: Right.

Paul: Immediately after, we had all kinds of issues with employees who wanted to donate to charities, who wanted to donate blood, who wanted to donate money, and we had to scramble and create bank accounts and figure out where these people were. So we added all of those things to our plan. We were able to then, when a crisis came up, let people know the phone numbers and places to go to donate blood, immediately. We didn't have to stop and look that stuff up, where to go to a bank and how to give a bank number to deposit to a particular charity, immediately. Because if you have to take 24 or 48 hours to set something like that up, you've really lost momentum.

Chuck: Well, and then policies and plans and things like that, they're not sexy. They're not necessarily a lot of fun to create, but I think the examples you've given show the true business value and employee value the communicators can bring by having them as a helpful resource.

So, one of the things I want to make sure that this podcast and the content is very scalable. So, for a business of any size, this could be a business of 20 people, 200 people, 200,000 people, why is it important not just to have a communication policy during a crisis, but to also communicate the policy itself, so that people know that it exists and what it can do for them?

Paul: I think every company needs to have a communication policy, and the time to create it is not in the midst of a crisis. The time to decide who can talk to the media and what they can say, who can participate in social media, is not in the midst of a crisis. You should do that in the cool, calm and collectedness. Give the lawyers plenty of time to vet your policies. Give everybody plenty of time to debate it and have it ready to go.

I think it's a policy you should have in place year round. But when a crisis hits, this is the time to remind employees of the communication policy. You can just send out, along with the rest of your crisis materials, you can have a link, "Here's a reminder of our communication policy," and determine what that is.

Chuck: Well, Paul, I certainly do appreciate your time. I think you've given people a lot of great advice, a lot of tips, a lot of take-aways for them. Whether they think they've got a great plan, something to go back and reevaluate or create a sense of urgency to create a strong communication policy, and plan, like you said, not during the heated moments, but during the cooler times.

What is a final piece of parting advice that you want to share with our communication audience? What's one thing you want to make sure they pick up?

Paul: Well, I think our audience probably knows, but to just, really to share with the world that employee communications are at the heart of every successful thing that a company does. And so therefore, if employee communication isn't a top priority, then every other single priority that you have is at risk. And that would certainly apply to our topic today on crisis communication.

Chuck: That's...nailed it perfectly. Finally, before we go, what's the best way for someone to find you and reach out to you if they want to ask you more questions or get to know you better?

Paul: Yeah, they can go to my website, which is paulbartonabc.com.

Chuck: Okay, and also, Paul's a great follow on Twitter @PaulBartonABC as well. So, good tie-in there for you. And again, Paul, I certainly wanted to thank you for being on ICology. Obviously, we always talk about internal communications, but I think you've certainly demonstrated that in a crisis, the role the communicator plays is so important. And I think, again, what I take away from this is when you shared that when you're needed most is when your company needs you at your best. And so that's really when a communicator could step up, not just show their worth during only a crisis, but that's really when a company probably has the greatest need for you to be at your best. So, again, we do appreciate your advice.

And then, some news for the listeners on the ICology side of things, you can always follow us on Twitter @LearnICology. But here this month, we'll also be launching my ICology website, which will make it easier to keep up-to-date with the episodes and guests, but also be an information hub for the IC world.

So if internal comms is your passion, ICology is your podcast. Thanks again for listening.