Internal comms in a natural disaster

Written by Annalie Brown, MPRINZ, Massey University and Central Committee member

Speakers (starting from left to right): Fiona Robinson-Morey, Lindsay Davis, Rebecca Kennedy and Rachel Helson.

On the 15th March, PRINZ Central Division were treated to a very honest account of the experience that four Wellington senior internal comms practitioners had in the wake of the Kaikoura Earthquake.

Each of the four panellists brought a very different flavour to the discussion but there was some collective advice that all communications professionals can learn from.

Here were the top tips shared by our panellists on how to make sure things go smoothly:

  • Having a position on the Incident/Crisis Management Team is critical. Not just to be the order taker, but to influence decisions. Comms is often the only discipline that brings the voice and concerns of the staff to the table. Also able to hold people accountable – do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it.
  • Establish a one point sign off process for all comms. The last thing you need is a laborious sign off chain, so establish who has responsibility for comms on the IMT/CMT and they are it. Doesn’t need to be the incident controller but needs to be someone senior.
  • Face-to-face meetings are vital to gaining the trust of employees, and make sure you get experts in to give the full picture. It gives employees the chance to ask questions and it also makes your leaders more human. Make sure you show compassion and a willingness to listen to your staff.
  • Early communication should be sent to ALL staff, not just those directly impacted. Many staff will be concerned for their colleagues so they will want to know as well. As the sense of urgency diminishes, start to refine your audiences to impacted staff and people leaders across the organisation.
  • Develop your people leaders as communicators NOW! They are an essential channel for staff when things go wrong and they will often be the first port of call. Make sure they know what’s expected of them as a communicator in different situations. Some will naturally be better than others so make sure information is still accessible to all on a chosen channel.
  • Social media – public or private – are a quick solution to update staff when your own IT systems are unavailable but you have to trust that staff are following you. It can’t be relied on as the only channel. So think about how you get your staff following your social channels ahead of any incidents. Often you’ll have IT issues preventing access to the intranet or even email, while social media is accessible from anywhere.
  • The timeliness, tone and content of your comms is more important than how it looks. People will forgive you some small mistakes or misjudgements if they feel informed and that you’re being transparent.
  • If staff have been out of the office for any period of time, consider the comms needs when they start to return to work – e.g. Welcome back message from the CEO, what’s open in the vicinity, what are they likely to see around the office that wasn’t there before, FAQs like reminders of how to reset passwords. And make the Leadership Team walk the floors - make them visible.
  • Teams may set up their own unofficial comms channels, such as Viber, Whatsapp and Facebook groups. Don’t inhibit this as it will become an additional channel that people will use/trust.