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Internal communications planning: Best practices in critical times

Messaging always matters, but it’s especially important in times of unpredictability and change. Readership of corporate communications is never higher than in these periods, and words carry more weight with employees when they’re anxious about what comes next.

The good news is the time-tested tenets of internal communications planning can still guide you in these moments. Whether it’s a smaller shakeup like a change in leadership or something as disruptive as a global pandemic, you can (should!) still anchor your strategy in the core principles of internal communications. If stressful times have you questioning your words, let this article bring you back to the basics.

Be authentic

While of course you always want your notes to be trustworthy, it’s even more necessary to establish trust when you need company-wide buy-in to navigate newness. First step: Be frank and honest about the reality of the situation.

In messages to employees, explicitly state a commitment to communicating openly and transparently. This is extra important when addressing new challenges or painful decisions, as some people may suspect that a bearer of bad news is sugarcoating their message.

It’s often impossible to answer all employees’ questions when things are changing quickly, which can cause anxiety for some. Be straightforward about what you know, and candid about what you don’t. When the answer isn’t available, acknowledge it and promise to follow up as soon as you have more information. And then actually follow up! Breaking promises can erode credibility, and failing to come back with an answer makes your commitment to transparency feel disingenuous.

Be clear

When processing new information, employees want and need explicit directives in approachable language. Aim to keep communications simple and to the point. You may instinctually adopt a formal tone when crafting important messages, but “business speak” could obscure the information or create a sense of distance. Make sure your audience walks away with a distinct take-home message; that may mean a change in tone.

It definitely means never “burying the lede” (i.e., not starting with your main idea). The point of an email, for example, should be apparent in the subject line. The body of your message should have a strong, straightforward beginning and a strong, straightforward ending. The way your written communications start and finish powerfully shape the reader’s experience.

Try also to write with as few words as possible. That doesn’t just mean being concise; it also means choosing more impactful words that carry more meaning. When you say you “want to have a real conversation” about something, you’ve found a faster and more effective way of saying that you “wish to have an open exchange of ideas.” Also consider whether certain terms and phrases you’re using have unintended interpretations. Corporate communications often contain implicit biases that aren’t obvious to the naked eye.

Plan to read what you’ve written out loud to make sure it has a natural rhythm to it before publishing. Also consider having someone review to ensure the message is clear to them, too.

Be in touch regularly

Periods of uncertainty call for regular updates. In the absence of a steady cadence of messaging, other sources will fill the vacuum—people will worry, speculate, or rely on rumors. Any break in communication can imply that something’s wrong, or that you’re intentionally leaving employees out of the conversation. At that point you risk losing control of the message and inviting more anxiety.

Right now, we’re seeing how the uncertainty around COVID-19 has increased people’s appetite for a steady stream of information. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, employers are now expected to regularly provide information on the crisis, with 63% of employees asking for daily updates and another 20% wanting multiple communications a day. People want to know what’s going on, and if they’re expecting updates, no news is bad news.

Even when you don’t have significant developments to report, try to send out a short message saying so. It will keep the flow of communication consistent and make employees feel valued and in the loop.

Be an example of resilient leadership

Inspiring leadership is never more appreciated than when the path forward is murky. If you’re in charge of internal communications planning during a period of transition, remember to communicate a compelling vision of the future. Employees experiencing change want a clear view of what they’re marching toward.

Articulate the “big picture” narrative of why change is necessary. If the plan is still being defined, at least communicate your ultimate goals and how those are guiding decisions along the way.

Without being corny or disingenuous, strive for a tone that motivates people and makes them feel like they’re part of a shared mission. A message focused on resilience and collaboration can give employees the boost they need to keep moving forward.

Be human

Remember that you’re communicating to humans—and write like one.

Use the first person and the active voice. Avoid slipping into a patronizing or autocratic tone. Also invite feedback and allow it to inform your messaging. Checking in to see how employees are coping can give you a better sense of what to speak to in your communications.

Above all, acknowledge what people are feeling and speak with empathy and compassion. Think about the many different challenges individual employees may be facing and try to be a voice of comfort.

Be sure to extend some compassion to yourself, too. Tend to your own mental health, and give yourself moments to breathe when things start getting hectic.

Make mindfulness part of your internal communications planning

In critical moments, words matter more than ever. It’s important to be mindful of how you use them. Carefully craft your messages with sensitivity for your employees. At the same time, don’t let your attention to detail delay regular communications when they’re needed most.

Work continually to find a middle ground between thoughtfulness and overthinking, since “analysis paralysis” can stop you from communicating as often as you should. Though challenging, finding a balanced approach to internal communications planning, grounded in the principles that always apply, will provide employees with a helpful, comforting voice when they need it.

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