The Latin maxim primum non nocere (translated as “first, do no harm”), a central tenet of medical ethics since antiquity, is equally applicable to employee communications during a public relations crisis. I asked Deborah Fiorito, President of 20K group and a communications professional with 30 years of corporate and agency public relations experience, to talk about what employees can do to help their company during a PR crisis and this is what she had to say:
The recent Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, Calif., is a great example of how employees can help. I can’t speak for whether Chevron empowers its employees to use or stay away from Twitter and Facebook, but CVX employees did go online and defend their company against people calling for a plant shutdown and an elimination of the Richmond site forever. It was effective and seemed sincere, even to a jaded old communicator like me. I say it, and I teach it: Employees at virtually all companies are stakeholders, either directly (through some kind of stock investment program) or indirectly (you’re employed, so you should theoretically be loyal, right [we won’t argue that point here for sure, because I’m not sure what THAT answer is], so it seems obvious that great management teams would spend time ensuring that employees are their best, most outspoken advocates and ambassadors. And they will do that if they know how to do their jobs well, are told they’re doing jobs well or understand what’s expected of them to improve. And finally, if employees know how their jobs fit into the company’s overall success, they will feel part of a crisis—equally threatened, equally concerned, and just as willing to spread the word that their company intends to find out what happened and fix it so it doesn’t happen again.
I realize that the standard mandate from corporate communications during and immediately after a crisis is: stay offline, read the company’s statements and heed the party line. It’s important for supervisors (who are employees, too) to ask and answer questions, maintain a pulse on the staff, respect their concerns and resist the urge to patronize them during stressful times.
Debbie’s unique perspective empowers companies to think of their employees as potential agents of positive communications, rather than a traditional view of employees as a potential communications risk that needs to be mitigated. I’d be interested in hearing what other PR and crisis communications experts think of this approach…