Safety culture

After the incident: Crisis communication in the digital age

Crisis Communication
Photo: alexsl/iStockphoto

For safety consultant Abby Ferri, it was an experiment. Setting aside her own training for just a moment by entering the site of a minor construction incident to see how close she could get, Ferri asked workers for their perspective on what happened. The crew obliged, speculating with complete strangers.

The incident occurred in 2012, before today’s social media climate of instant sharing and location stamps. Imagine what might have transpired had it happened in the present, said Ferri, who stresses to employers the importance of early, coordinated communication during crises – such as after a serious workplace injury – to help prevent the spread of inaccurate information.

“You don’t have to be an expert on how Facebook’s algorithms work or anything like that,” said Ferri, a certified safety professional based in Minneapolis. “You just need to get some simplistic type of training to your workers [so], in the case of an emergency, they don’t post to social media first.”

Now, now, now

For many people, the immediacy of smartphone cameras and social media platforms on which to share photos, observations and opinions has transformed Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and more into go-to destinations whenever newsworthy events occur. Now, employers must contend with a digital landscape that has the potential to negatively affect an organization’s image and message.

Although traditional outlets such as press releases, press conferences and media interviews remain communication mainstays, the public increasingly seeks information online via company websites, social media channels or blogs – at all hours.

“The clock starts at minute zero, really, and expectations today are extremely high,” said Melissa Agnes, an international crisis management speaker based in Toronto. “And it’s difficult. The longer we take to respond effectively to a situation, the more control over the narrative we lose. The more credibility and trust we risk losing with those who matter.”

Agnes offers several questions crisis communication plans should address:

  • Who is responsible for drafting the message on behalf of the organization?
  • What does the approval process entail?
  • How is the message disseminated internally and to external stakeholder groups, including the public?

Larger organizations that have public relations staffs face the same challenges as smaller companies that might use someone from another department to manage communication, experts say. “Those people need to realize that there will be information out there on social media, that you can’t control everything,” Ferri said. “So whenever something happens, good or bad, they need to be able to have what their message is and get that message out there.”

Be prepared

Preparedness is paramount to balance message control with information demand.

Suzet McKinney is an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health. McKinney previously served as deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Response at the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Speaking May 22 at the National Safety Council Spring Professional Safety Network Division Meetings in Rosemont, IL, she emphasized the importance of outlining basic, initial correspondence in anticipation of potential incidents.

McKinney recommends assembling a group of organizational leaders to discuss the company and the nature of its work, including any potential hazards employees face. This allows employers to begin thinking through various issues while forming the foundation of a message that is tailorable to a specific crisis response.

“You’ve thought about it in advance and you’ve gotten the bulk of it down on paper,” she said.

Having a head start can help organizations focus additional elements of crisis communication messages should an incident – and the urgency surrounding it – arise.

“When you are in the midst of that pressure, things come out, and you figure out gaps that you may not have thought about when you were just talking about it, you know, [during] ‘peace time,’ as I like to say,” McKinney said.

Communicating with workers

Danny Smith, a Birmingham, AL-based senior safety consultant for SafeStart, advocates an additional precautionary measure: establishing an understanding among employees about how, when and what the organization will communicate.

Smith said that although it’s important for employers to acknowledge and reasonably accommodate workers’ demands for updated information during a crisis, officials also should encourage workers to consume information – not produce it.

“Saying up front, ‘Hey, this is what we expect of you. We don’t want you going out and saying things that could end up jeopardizing the company,’” he said. “At the same time, you do that and you also get some people – I guess you would say the natural pessimists in the room – that are [saying], ‘OK, well, what are they trying to hide?’ Well, it’s not necessarily trying to hide something, it’s trying to make sure that the information is correct that’s getting out there. Not some other stuff that shouldn’t be there in the first place.”

Agnes echoed that sentiment.

“Make sure they’re trained to know what is expected of them and why,” she said. “That’s so important … the ‘why.’ Because often what I’ve seen is employees who make (communication) mistakes like that, they do it with the best intentions, they really do. They don’t do it to cause havoc.”

Prevention through policy

Creating a social media policy and training workers on it can help bridge communication gaps or ambiguities between employers and workers.

Ferri recommends organizations accentuate positive language early in training sessions before transitioning to any list of “don’ts.” Direct workers to contact the internal organization emergency number in the event of a crisis and work through an emergency action plan as trained. Once that’s understood, establish guidelines for social media use.

“It’s one of those situations where you kind of pull the safety card and it would be OK,” Ferri said, suggesting a statement such as, “For safety purposes or for safety reasons, you should not be posting after an incident on social media any site-specific or worker-specific or speculative information.”

Smith, too, stresses the importance of worker guidelines on communication. “In my opinion, if you don’t define it, if you don’t train people, if you don’t tell them what is expected, then once something does happen, you don’t really have the right to be upset with what happens with the message that gets out,” he said. “Because you didn’t do anything to kind of unify the message on the front end and try to get everybody thinking the same way and working in the same direction.”

Protected social network speech

Social media use can be a form of “protected concerted activity” that allows workers to freely discuss work conditions under the National Labor Relations Act – provided it comes in a group exchange.

“You have the right to address work-related issues and share information about pay, benefits and working conditions with co-workers on Facebook, YouTube and other social media,” according to the National Labor Relations Board. “But just individually griping about some aspect of work is not ‘concerted activity’: what you say must have some relation to group action, or seek to initiate, induce or prepare for group action, or bring a group complaint to the attention of management.”

NLRB goes on to state that unprotected activity includes “if you say things about your employer that are egregiously offensive or knowingly and deliberately false, or if you publicly disparage your employer’s products or services without relating your complaints to any labor controversy.”

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