Engaging and Informing Employees During a Crisis

Most crisis communication plans depend at least somewhat on the ability and willingness of employees to come to work - but that assumption may not be valid.


According to a Deloitte study, including employees in pre-crisis planning and keeping them updated during an organizational emergency are critical to ensuring their participation and maintaining consistent communications with customers and other key stakeholders.

FEI Daily spoke with Kathie Schwerdtfeger, crisis recovery leader for Deloitte Advisory Strategic Risk Services, about the important role employees can play in helping an organization’s crisis response and communications efforts.

FEI Daily: What kind of role should employee communications play in crisis planning?


Kathie Schwerdtfeger: In the early days when we talked about business continuity planning, we talked about events when data centers went down or organizations couldn’t get payroll out. But in today’s environment, crises are often more complex than just a portion of the business not being able to handle their day-to-day activities. They fundamentally undermine the essence of some of those organizations actually operating, and any time you have a crisis that strikes, with any sort of complexity, it often takes people away from their day jobs — but they’re in the best position to actually manage through the process, and they may not have the right knowledge skills or abilities to understand how to react in times of crisis.


Organizations often don’t think about the impact to their employees and their leadership team when crisis strikes, so we do believe, looking at it holistically, companies need to focus on the people aspect and what you can expect for them, and from them.

There may be a type of crisis whereby their own safety has been challenged, maybe they have impacts in own family or their own close network, and that’s definitely an aspect that needs to be considered holistically when putting together a well-orchestrated plan for crisis.

FEI Daily: This may vary according to different scenarios, but what does employee communications tend to involve?

Kathie Schwerdtfeger: It starts with building what we would like to call a crisis vocabulary within the organization. You need to define and understand when we talk about “crisis,” we’re going to talk about what is and what is not a crisis, and how we as an organization are going to respond. It’s important that you involve all levels of the organization in that conversation to build a culture of not just education and communication about it, but ultimately a culture of trust and confidence of the employees that when something bad happens, we’ve thought about it and we’re prepared as we can be in light of the unknown.

Some of the aspects that come into that include getting them involved in the planning process itself. Obviously, entire organizations cannot be involved, but through and training, you can help employees understand what the risks are, and how the organization intends to respond. For example, are employees going to be able to show up in different types of crisis, and what would be their barriers to coming in and lending a helping hand? Do they have a personal safety issue? Is there a leadership concern? At the end of the day, does it just become work and they’re not going to jeopardize their safety?

Thinking about these things up front, so many people will raise their hand to be part even the tough stuff if they know they’re going to add value, and they’re truly going to have a role in something that contributes to the overall safety and well-being of their fellow workers or their clients. So making sure they understand their role, making sure that everybody understands how together they have to pull forward to move forward and move out of crisis and being able to utilize them more than for just their day jobs.

FEI Daily: Can employees play other roles in crisis management?

Kathie Schwerdtfeger: We often talk about using employees as sensors who can help you either identify a potential crisis, or with your post-crisis communications. They’re closer to their clients, and they’re closest to the issues at hand. They’re often going to have that first-level knowledge, and you want to help them communicate how the response is being handled and ultimately what will need to be done to recover. You also don’t want them going off script and unintentionally or even intentionally contributing to dialogue that’s not helpful.

You also have to reassure them about the response. This is a company they work for, they may be worried about their own livelihood and their ability to pay their mortgage and take care of themselves if the company doesn’t respond appropriately. They may be concerned about their personal safety or their safety of their family and their friends and their coworkers. Being able to provide information and resources can be very helpful but, like your plans, those should be considered and identified well in advance.

FEI Daily: What are the best kinds of information you should be providing to employees?

Kathie Schwerdtfeger: It first starts with what the organization is doing as it relates to planning for a crisis, what do they do in the event that crisis strikes, and what does the response really look like? And then what happens in recovery, and when do you know it’s over? When do you know it’s fixed? Involving them in that process can help them understand what the playbook would say, and what they do and say in different scenarios. Every crisis is unique, but there some common elements in the organization’s response.

FEI Daily: Is social media becoming part of crisis response planning?

Kathie Schwerdtfeger: It is. Being able to have good crisis communications is integral, and it’s not just the internal communications, it’s also about what the public needs to know. They’re part of the community, and so understanding what’s being done to protect the public interest is really important. The quicker you can get out in social media with the right message and stay focused and on target, the better your overall response and recovery will go.

FEI Daily: As companies develop those messages, do they have to guard against them sounding like platitudes?

Kathie Schwerdtfeger: Oh, absolutely. Your communications need to be real, and they need to be focused on what’s the most important message at the moment. A message that is good at one point of the crisis may not be effective at another point. In the early days, you certainly want to stay focused on what the most important moment in that day or that week is. If you’re dealing with loss of life, for example, you don’t want to be talking about the fact that you may need to move your operations temporarily while you deal with rebuilding of your facility. This certainly could be taken the wrong way, out in the community.

You’ve got to think about those things and have a sensitivity to what the public is feeling and seeing. You certainly have to look at it, not just kind of the fiscal angle or getting the business up and running, but by understanding what’s really important that day. Is it turning the lights on? Is it picking up the debris and starting to move forward with construction? What’s the right message, and that message will continue to change day to day, week to week, month to month.

FEI Daily: Are there common mistakes in crisis planning to guard against?

Kathie Schwerdtfeger: Many organizations, first of all, don’t think about crisis until it happens. It’s hard to want to spend money, time and effort thinking about the what-ifs, because there’s a natural inclination to say it’s not going to happen here. So the biggest mistake is not spending enough time thinking about what could potentially impact them. What does crisis really mean, and how should we react to these various types of crises?

The second would be not involving the organization as a whole, and keeping the response plan within a small group of the organization, such as keeping it within executive management or within the data center because it’s perceived to be something that would happen to the technology department.

Companies have to realize a crisis can have implications across the whole organization, and to plan their response and their messaging accordingly.