Why Internal Communication is Important During a Crisis
Internal communication ensures that all members of an organization or company are collectively working together to achieve a common goal. Within a corporate organization, internal communication ensures cohesive functioning which can achieve a healthier, more productive organization. It illuminates the connections between different pieces of information, to shine a light on the web of inter-dependencies and to show the links between one area and another. Lack of transparency and a two-way flow of communication can be a main source of internal friction and failure to meet objectives such as commitments to following the company’s missions and values. Communicating internally is also a vital part of any crisis management, whether it is a pandemic, or a natural disaster in the workplace. It is crucial to learn from past faced crisis and be prepared for the future in order to overcome the unforeseen obstacles such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
External to Internal Communications
In past years, most studies rely heavily on the influence of external communication such as advertising or communicating with the media. Less attention has been paid to the strategic role an internal communication strategy can play. In 2014, a study was conducted at the University of Targoviste in Romania and posted in Valahian Journal of Economic Studies. It shows that internal communication should be treated as the 'first frontier' in any battle. Without integrating an internal communication strategy, there is a greater chance of having misinformed employees making errors of judgement; opportunity for conflict; and dissatisfaction among employees contributing to a toxic and failing corporate culture. It is more important than ever to realize the full potential of internal communication; to define strategic goals, to formulate key messages and to identify the best channels to convey them. (Stegaroiu, Talal 2014)
In the last five years, internal communication has gone farther than chief executive and managers agendas. Internal communications are now more important than ever before. Managers understand that engaging their employees is all the more crucial and more difficult to achieve in a world of joint ventures , outsourcing, partnering, and advancing technology. A Deloitte and Touche Human Capital survey asked which HR issues were very important to the success of an organization. ‘Effective internal communication’ was stated by 95% of chief executives but only 22% thought it was being delivered effectively. According to the Book, Making the Connections: Using Internal Communication to Turn Strategy into Action, author Bill Quirke states that companies/organizations have to make two changes simultaneously. Identify what is the intended business value in communicating and design a better process to deliver that value. We have to shift from seeing internal communication as a process of distribution, to using it as a process of conversation. Just as an assembly line worker converts, or adds value to, a component he receives from up the line, so we have to convert information we receive into meaning in order to help employees make the right decision. internal communication job is to provide employees with the information they need to do their work, and to paint the bigger picture and tell the fuller story that puts their information into context. (Quirke, 2012)
In “normal”, day-to-day circumstances, internal communication is vital to the proper functioning of an organization. For the effective management of crisis situations its role is all the more so. Indeed, the lack of accurate, adequate, timely and fluent information during a crisis can make the effects of a specific crisis much more detrimental to a company or any organization as a whole. In 2005, FedEx faced a huge task in maintaining the flow of information to employees who were displaced in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. As is their practice in crisis situations, FedEx management brought together a team of representatives from several departments when Katrina hit to coordinate internal and external messaging as well as relief and community outreach efforts. The team used e-mail, its nationwide internal satellite television network, external media releases, web pages and telephone hotlines to keep employees up-to- date and global operations running. A special hotline was set up to provide affected employees with much-needed information about how to use their benefits, get their paychecks cashed and plan their return to their homes. Relief supplies were sent using the company's delivery network, and executive management teams visited the areas hit by the storm. The relief and response efforts were so successful that FedEx was the first cargo company to resume service to the area. "FedEx has a strong internal communications team, and we are networked with all other departments," says Scott Fiedler, a communications adviser at FedEx Express who played a key role on the internal communication team. "Communicating major adjustments to our operation while finding and helping our people who had been displaced was a tremendous challenge. But working closely with people across the entire FedEx organization gave us the opportunity to keep the information flow going. Reputation starts with your employees, and that is on the line every time you have a crisis." (Johansen 2012)
Internal communication during a crisis isn’t something that just affects big corporations and companies when a crisis hits. There are also many unique communication challenges facing hospitals during a disaster or crisis. In the face of disasters like pandemics or terrorist attacks, hospital communicators must be prepared to communicate quickly and effectively. Furthermore, in crisis, hospitals must apply guiding principles of crisis management and effective internal communication strategies. The public has high expectations that hospitals will provide compassion, care, safe havens, and extensive support for survivors of community-based disasters. At the same time, communicative failures during disasters often impede hospitals’ capacities to support communities.
An oral history was conducted with Stephanie Davis, an Operations Manager of the a critical department to the NYU Medical Center. She has been working for NYU for seven years and conducts systematic operational reviews of practice operations to identify and recommend areas for improvement. She works in tandem with the Department Administrator and Practice Managers to discuss financial outcomes and operational issues. Davis stated that “There have been many challenges that we have had to work through during this current pandemic. Time. Space. Daily changes to how we were approaching this crisis”. However, the biggest challenge for Davis and her staff has been figuring out the best means of communication so that everyone feels involved and informed. She explained that when one has a staff of 50 people (not including physicians) across two office locations it is almost impossible to meet with everyone in person to keep them updated on the latest information. She relied heavily on emails to push out relevant information as it is the most efficient way to communicate to a large group of people. However, she has also come to realize that the best form of communication for herself does not work for her staff. Davis stated, “They want the one-to-one interaction with me; they want the “team huddles” and verbal interaction.” Emails during times of crisis are not working as the main source of communication. Davis explained that it is good to use emails as a way to reinforce/recap what has been discussed in a team meeting; but used as the only means of communication only leads to feelings of fear and lack of transparency.
There have been many instances of miscommunication for Davis. Most have resulted from the game of telephone. One person reads, hears or interprets something in a manner that is not accurate and then communicates it to another staff member and so on. It’s a domino effect that can lead to some serious issues. Since Davis realized that communication via email was not working and had to figure out another way to keep her staff informed she stated that understanding that all people do not operate exactly like you do is a key to understanding people you are either involved or work with. She stated, “Hearing what my staff was telling me was not easy because their feelings of being uniformed manifested in frustration with their daily roles which, in turn, frustrated me. I could not understand why they felt uninformed because I had sent out a dozen emails with updates on the situation and how we were handling it.” This overall caused Davis to take a step back and observed what works for them and take a different approach. She still send the emails but once a week we meet as a whole team via Webex for 30 minutes. It gives them a chance to connect all together as a team and share with them any/all new information and updates. “They want to hear the information directly from me and not from an email and they appreciate the time we spend together.” Since the start of those weekly calls, morale has increased, the levels of anxiety and fear have significantly decreased, and all staff feel engaged and informed.
The tools and methods that have been most useful Davis is active listening and direct communication. She continued to explain that “giving my staff the platform to vocalize their concerns, fears and ideas so that they feel heard and understood has gone a long way in helping them to feel supported.”
Davis also stressed the importance of appreciation. “A few weeks ago, the department managers and lead physicians did a video montage of thank you letters for her staff. It was similar to some of the videos that have been posted that make it look like teachers from the same school passing notes to each other for their students. “The staff really loved it and felt very appreciated.” Davis stated.
Internal communication has a direct impact on any organizations or company’s success. After examining internal communication methods and tools, analyzing past academics studies that support effective communication methods used in past crisis, and an oral history conducted with an Operations Manager who gave incite on different internal communication methods being utilized during the current COVID-19 pandemic, it is evident the importance of maintaining efficient flow of communication especially when facing a crisis. The data collected overall supports that communicating effectively with your internal team can alter day-to-day operations, cross-departmental collaboration, strategic alignment within the company values, employee motivation and productivity, company culture, and employee engagement and retention in a positive way.
Citations Adamu, A. A., Mohamad, B. B., & Abdul Rahman, N. A. B. (2018). Towards measuring internal crisis communication: A qualitative study. Journal of Asian Pacific Communication (John Benjamins Publishing Co.), 28(1), 107–128. https://doi-org.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/10.1075/japc.00006.ada Brown, Timothy S. Public Relations Quarterly. Winter2003, Vol. 48 Issue 4, p31-34. 4p https://web-a-ebscohost-com.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=6&sid=9a57cfc6-efe3-4f61- 9d23- fc3caf684171%40sessionmgr4007&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=12026115&db=ufh Cagle, Jimmy, Internal communication during a crisis pays dividends. Communication World, Mar/Apr2006, Vol. 23, Issue 2 https://web-b-ebscohost-com.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=2&sid=0378ce1b-8831-4c18- 85e0-d2ae9a7ba988%40pdc-v- sessmgr05&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=20203909&db=ufh Davis Stephanie, May 12th 2020, Oral History Interview
Johansen, Winni; Aggerholm, Helle K.; Frandsen, Finn. Public Relations Review. Jun2012, Vol. 38 Issue 2, p270-279. https://web-a-ebscohost-com.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=4&sid=9a57cfc6-efe3-4f61- 9d23- fc3caf684171%40sessionmgr4007&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=73524577&db=ufh Liua,.Fowlera,Roberts, Herovicc (Novemeber 2018) Public Relations Review. Vol. 44 Issue 4, p585-597. 13p. https://web-b-ebscohost-com.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=22&sid=c7073aae-2cb0-4259- 973c-e2b6ae19afe0%40pdc-v- sessmgr04&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=131849819&db=ufh
Meng, J., & Pan, P.-L. (2012). Using a balanced set of measures to focus on long-term competency in internal communication. Public Relations Review, 38(3), 484–490. https://doi- org.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/10.1016/j.pubrev.2012.03.005
Quirke, Bill. (2017) Making the Connections: Using Internal Communication to Turn Strategy intoAction, 2nd Edition. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=tc3bojn2y_cC&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=the+importance+of+i nternal+communication&ots=mioJ6ncjIh&sig=0- 2ZPXz3LvxqGDJKjoJpqaCbCug#v=onepage&q=the%20importance%20of%20internal%20communication &f=false
Stegaroiu, Ion; Talal, Mohamad. (2014) Valahian Journal of Economic Studies; Targoviste Vol. 5, Iss. 1, 63-70. https://search.proquest.com/openview/341e1bb866e6a87b19b8d510f90be109/1?pq- origsite=gscholar&cbl=2029114
Zerfass, A., & Franke, N. (2013). Enabling, Advising, Supporting, Executing: A Theoretical Framework for Internal Communication Consulting Within Organizations. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 7(2), 118–135. https://doi-org.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/10.1080/1553118X.2013.765438
Jillian Scanio is a graduate school student at Baruch College in NYC working towards her masters in Corporate Communication. She has a BA in Public Relations from Seton Hall University.
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