When flooding first struck Cumbria this winter, I noticed something very interesting amongst the early social media posts: organisations were using Facebook and Twitter to reach their staff. Turning to public-facing social media to get hold of your staff in an emergency may be a pragmatic, belt-and-braces approach in the digital age, but it could also be a sign that your crisis communications plan is somewhat lacking.
In this post, I’ll share some straightforward internal tools that you could put in place now to make it easier for you to reach your staff urgently. Before we get started, though, a brief word about the bigger picture. The flooding in Cumbria will have served as a harsh reminder that every organisation should have an emergency plan, along with a business continuity plan for dealing with the aftermath of an incident. Depending on your business, they don’t have to be complicated to write. I’ve put a few good sources of information at the end of this post. If you don’t already have these plans in place, it would make a good New Year’s Resolution!
No matter how good your emergency plan is, though, you won’t be able to put it into action unless you can contact, brief and coordinate with your staff. It’s a challenge that was brought home to me during the London Tube and bus bombings in 2005, as an internal comms officer at Camden Council. Later, I would get the chance to work on emergency plans for some of the large public-sector organisations I’ve worked with during my career – from planning for strike action to situations like a flu pandemic.
Your emergency plan will consider the most likely risks to your business and how you’ll respond to them. The way you’ll communicate with your staff in an emergency will depend on lots of factors, such as:
- the nature of the emergency
- how many staff you have
- where they work (one building or several sites)
- what shifts they work
- when the emergency happens (during or outside your normal working hours)
- what communication channels are available (whether you can access your normal IT network; what channels your staff have access to)
Once you’ve weighed up all these factors and have your messages ready to go out, you’ll need to have communication mechanisms ready to go. So, here my recommendations for tools you should have in place as a minimum:
1. Phone call cascade
A phone call cascade is often the starting point for communicating with staff urgently – particularly if it happens outside normal working hours. It works by one person being responsible for kicking off the cascade by calling one or two specified colleagues. They will then call several others, and so on until you’ve reached relevant members of staff. In a medium-sized or large business, for example, the chief executive might initiate the cascade by calling members of the management team, who then alert their department heads, and they in turn call their senior managers.
Cascades are particularly good for getting an early indication of which staff are available to respond to the emergency, flagging up any major gaps in your staff cover, so that you can address them quickly.
As part of your emergency plan, decide how your cascade will work and distribute a list of phone numbers to relevant staff, ensuring that they also keep paper copies at home and on mobile devices in case the emergency happens out of hours or your IT infrastructure is affected. Don’t forget that mobile phones might be out of use in certain types of emergencies, such as a major terrorism incident.
2. Text alert system
Larger organisations in particular might find it helpful to sign up to an external texting service for emergency use. This allows you to send out SMS messages to a large number of people at once. Your emergency plan might, for example, dictate that for certain types of situations you’ll alert staff initially with a text message. The text could advise staff to check a secure page on your internet site, or give a phone number staff could call for more information. More on these below.
3. Recorded message line
Giving staff a phone number to call for regular recorded updates can be a simple way to keep them informed. This could be a number on your normal phone network with a recorded message facility, but make sure it can cope with the call volume you might expect and that the message can be changed remotely, securely, and by more than one person. Crucially, don’t forget to tell your staff about it now and remind them regularly as part of your communications about emergency response, so that they know to use it when the time comes.
4. Password-protected web page
It may be possible to create a section on your public website that staff can log into with a password. You’ll need to make sure the page can be updated quickly and remotely – with ideally more than one member of staff able to do it, for resilience.
5. All-staff email
Create and maintain reliable lists of email addresses for each department or team. Think about how you’d access those lists if you couldn’t use your normal IT network (or your building) due to the emergency. Put in place procedures for keeping the lists updated with leavers and joiners.
6. Internal social media
If you have a system like Yammer, you can use it to keep staff informed and enable them to share information and even help coordinate effort.
7. Public address or screens
If you have these in your buildings, you can use them to give staff instructions or keep them informed about an unfolding situation. Make sure you designate several people who can update them, and test them regularly.
If you’ve had to close your premises because of the emergency, think about how you’d display notices outside to give information to employees arriving at your staff entrances. It could be as simple as some A boards. Designate people in advance who’ll be responsible for putting them out.
Reaching your staff quickly in an emergency and keeping them informed doesn’t have to involve expensive or complicated systems. If you put some of these straightforward tools in place in advance, they’ll pay you dividends in terms of staff safety, protection of your premises and reduced downtime, preserving your customer service levels and your reputation.
Was your organisation affected by the flooding in Cumbria this winter? It’d be great to hear your experiences of reaching and coordinating with your staff. In particular, please share any tips that might help others.