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WikiLeak vs Bank of America: How to Maintain Morale Amid A PR Crisis

What would you do if the internet was abuzz with vague rumors about your employer that was hurting the company's stock price, prompting negative headlines and making your employees awfully nervous? Add to that challenge the fact that your employees are working remotely and feeling cut off from the mother ship already. What is this doing to your and their stress level, company loyalty and work? That's what many people at Bank of America probably are going through and it serves as a good object lesson on how managers should handle internal distance communication.

Studies regularly show that people who work remotely, either from home or from smaller satellite offices, feel disconnected and out of the loop already. That can lead to lower morale and higher turnover. When the company is embroiled in scandal, or just just the victim of an ugly rumor, though, the situation is exacerbated, as most of what these employees find out comes from sources other than their manager or company.

When a PR crisis hits, managers are sometimes reluctant to communicate because they don't have all the answers, or the information they would like. A good line is: " I/we will tell what we know, what I/we don't know and what I/we can't tell you." Waiting until you know everything can be fatal, however; you have to be proactive.

The good news is that the technology which is helping fan the flames of concern also can help keep your team together. Here are five tips for helping your remote team through a crisis:

  1. Don't wait until there is a crisis to have a plan. Every team needs to have a working communication plan. This should include the normal rules of how you communicate with each other and where to find information you need. It also should explain how they can find company information with the latest updates on the intranet or company website. It should also explain very clearly (and before there's a problem so it is a matter of routine) how to handle inquiries from the press or others.
  2. Give people regular company information as a matter of course and answer questions when they arise. Employees shouldn't only get news when it's bad. Remember that most WikiLeaks sources and whistle blowers are unhappy employees who have been building up to this for a while. Maintaining a positive image with your people, answering questions and monitoring their mood is the best way to prevent bad things from happening. Using internal electronic billboards and blogs is a great way to surface concerns and address faulty information before someone decides they need to go public.
  3. Be proactive about getting information out to staffers. Don't let the media drive the conversation for your team. If you can give them a heads up on what's coming ("you'll likely hear on the news...") you'll stand a better chance of appearing in control and you'll be able to help them prepare for any bad news or speculation that's coming. Use every medium at your disposal- emails, instant messages that direct them to more in-depth information like shared file and intranet sites,voicemail, whatever it takes. If they don't hear from you, they'll make up their own minds and few people create a best-case scenario when left to their own imagination.
  4. Be as forthcoming as you can at this time. Situations like WikiLeaks, or the BP Oilspill are fluid, and information changes as quickly as the crawl at the bottom of their TV screen. If you give your folks the most current, truthful information as soon as you have it they will feel less left out. Remember to make sure that this is only what you know at the moment. Always tell people the source of the information (internal resources like the CEO, external resources like independent sources) and when you received it.
  5. Ensure there is a consistency in the message, but don't threaten workers. It makes you look evil or scared. As a company, you'll naturally want to control how reactions and new information get out to the media. You should have a policy in place as part of your standard communication plan already and you only have to remind them of how to handle inquiries. Local news outlets are always trying to find a local angle so people who aren't usually approached by the press will suddenly have the opportunity to speak. If you want them to defer to your appointed press relations or PR folks, then they have to know where to send those media requests and what to say. Suddenly sending out messages in bold dark font that basically say "For the love of God don't say anything to the press and if you do you're fired" won't make you seem in control. Explain why you want them to pass the information on, and it's always helpful to give them a couple of bullet points they can use to address their friends and family, who will be asking a lot of hard questions as well.
Err on the side of more communication than less- and it's worth telling your people there's nothing new to report (when it's true). Radio silence only increases the feeling of being kept in the dark.

Whatever is going on at Bank of America or any other company that experiences a public-relations crisis, the very tools that spread gossip and disinformation can also help your team feel connected, cared for and informed. It's up to you to help your team through it.

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photo by flickr user carolmure CC 2.0