Contributed by Eden Gillott, an EO Accelerator participant in Los Angeles. As president of Gillott Communications, a strategic and crisis communications firm, Eden helps companies protect reputations and build trust. We asked Eden how she guides companies to navigate difficult internal communications challenges and minimize brand damage. Here’s what she shared:
As entrepreneurs, we enjoy spending our time building. We build products or services that change the world; we build processes to improve our performance; and we build teams to make our dreams become a reality.
In EO, we are no strangers to overcoming Verne Harnish’s concept of “Valleys of Death.” To overcome these, we know that we need to change. But what happens when the changes required to achieve our dreams aren’t appropriately communicated?
Navigating an internal crisis
That was the situation I found myself managing as I counseled and guided a company in navigating an internal communications crisis recently after turmoil erupted over a surprise change in leadership. Management was criticized for letting the hiring committee select candidates hastily and in secret. The Board approved the choice, and the new CEO was announced without explanation or context.
As you can imagine, this didn’t go over well with employees, who immediately began demanding answers. But it wasn’t until key performance indicators (KPIs) tanked that management addressed the issue.
The company leadership decided to hold a special company-wide meeting to communicate the change to employees but had no idea how to build and execute a strategy that would accomplish their goals. That’s when we were called in to sort out the communications crisis. Our goal was to guide them through the process of repairing the company’s trust with employees and limiting the bad optics externally.
Remember the rule: First, develop your strategy. Then build your communications around it.
As my team gathered information to formulate a winning strategy for our client, we asked the leadership all about the current crisis and other relevant details that could inform our path forward.
14 Strategic questions to ask
Here’s a peek into some of the questions that needed to be asked and answered before any further internal or external communications went out. The answers would impact how we could best frame the issue. They also would help us anticipate further blowback and how to deflect it.
These 14 questions can help any company dealing with an internal communications crisis identify the ideal path forward:
- Is this a departure from how management changes are typically handled? If so, why? How is it different? Will this be the new normal?
- While the employees feel like they should have had a say, do they actually have a right in the selection process?
- Is the Board aligned with management? If not, why?
- Will the special employee meeting focus solely on the new CEO, or are other issues also on the table?
- Is this the first employee meeting of its kind at the company? If not, how did the others go? What lessons were learned? How will you avoid making the same mistakes again? What’s changed since the last meeting?
- What’s the culture of the organization? Is it open and transparent, or tight-lipped and secretive?
- What’s already been communicated—both in writing and verbally—about the process and new CEO?
- What’s the new CEO’s background? Do they have a strong track record or a controversial past? Do they have skeletons in the closet?
- Do other potential candidates feel “passed over,” or were they not actually seeking the opportunity?
- Are the unhappy and vocal employees those who routinely challenge the company’s business decisions?
- Are employees upset because their favorite wasn’t chosen, or simply because they weren’t included in the process?
- In addition to all of the changes associated with COVID, what are some other recent changes that employees have experienced?
- How does this change in management fit into the company’s overall strategy for the future?
- Are more changes coming? If so, you must factor them in.
When things have already been done and said, you can’t un-ring that bell. But you can strategize your next move to keep from making a situation worse.
As entrepreneurs, time isn’t always on our side. But if it is, take advantage of it. If the company had engaged its team in the organizational change and communicated it through proactive strategic communications, it would have eliminated or limited the need for damage control.