Nestle’s Maggi is undergoing a major crisis and the entire leadership is busy firefighting. However, an effective internal communication plan can be helpful in dousing the fire faster.
Crisis doesn’t come calling. It can happen anytime, anywhere. No individual or organisation can claim immunity. Let us take the case of the latest controversy around Nestle’s Maggi. A brand which was popular across generations is now fighting for survival. We are not getting into the righteousness of the subject but the fact remains that any organisation can or has come across a similar situation, though both the nature and degree of the problem could be different.
In such situations, it is expected that the top leadership of the company will get busy firefighting outside. No harm. That is the way it should be. But it is also dangerous to ignore the small sparks inside, which could just transform into a big fire or may have a long-lasting effect, internally, even after the issue gets over.
If industry observers are to be believed, it is almost imperative for an organisation to communicate and clear the air internally as well as externally. And the human resources function has a great role to play in this.
In terms of internal communication, the first thing the companies in crisis should do is change the way they communicate with the internal audience. During such situations, there can no longer be a conversation between the leaders and the subjects. Rather, the leadership has to come down to the level of the employees and speak to them at par. Only then will they be heard.
Says Santosh Desai, CEO, Future Brands, “There has to be a human approach to the story while communicating with the employees. False claims and promises do not work in such situations. In fact, a further attempt to hide anything from the employees could just backfire.”
In simple words, if a goof up has happened, it is important to accept it in front of the employees.
Poor communication or the lack of any communication will generate rumours. If one side suspects that the other has access to more information, this will further aggravate the issue.
A few years back, a multinational cola brand had got into a controversy on a similar quality issue. We are talking about Coca-Cola
The first thing the Company did was reach out to all the employees— from the top leaders to the front line employees— who directly touch the customers in the markets, and present them with transparent ‘pure facts’.
“They had to believe us unquestionably or we would lose the battle,” says Adil Malia, president HR, Essar Group. Malia was senior vice-president, Coca-Cola India at the time of the controversy.
“We stopped all work in all departments because we wanted all ‘feet on the street’,” adds Malia.
One message that needs to be sent across the cross-section of employees, is that it is not the problem of just the top leadership alone. Rather, it is every employee’s problem and everyone needs to contribute to get to over this situation.
Coca-Cola India prepared communication packs with FAQs and built teams of its employees to go and convince critical opinion makers and influential key customers in different segments. When employees were involved in convincing others, they started getting into the facts and believing in the product integrity much more than before.
It even went a step ahead when it wrote letters to families and explained the facts. Neighbours, friends, school teachers, even canteens and street corner ‘Mom&Pop’ shops had to be convinced, and who could be better brand ambassadors than the extended families!
It is important to involve each employee. By giving each one of them a task, the employees will feel that they are part of the organisation. This will not only be helpful in breaking the perceptions, but also boost the morale of the team.
Regular communication is also an integral part of the internal communication strategy during crisis time.
Pepsi, for instance, made sure that during the crisis situation, the then CEO, Vikram Bakshi communicated with the employees directly on a daily basis to update them on the progress.
From a workforce perspective, such crisis situations can be a boon in disguise for organisations in the long run.
It is the time of acid test. Companies will get to know their loyalists and also should take this opportunity to bind the team together, but there has to be complete transparency in the conversation.
It’s similar to the situation, when crisis hits a family — the closed ones get together to fight the external force without worrying much about the repurcussion.
Abhijit Bhaduri, chief learning officer, WIPRO, opines, “The perceptions of an employee based on past experiences, determine how strongly they defend an employer brand under attack.”
“It would be killing to start building employee trust and belief in the brand integrity only at the last minute, when the brand is under market attack. The Army that sweats in peace, bleeds less in war,” concurs Malia.
The crisis situations also have a long-standing effect. If the leadership manages to sail through the crisis through smart moves, it is not only able to build a perception among its present employees but is also able to attract talent and future employees in the long run.