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August 4, 2021

How crisis communications can actually strengthen a family business in challenging times

crisis communication

When trying to operate in times of crisis, one thing that is essential is that the family business quickly comes together to present a united front, within the company and to the wider world. A crisis can shine a spotlight on the weak spots of an organisation’s communications policies and habits, or conversely it can highlight the underlying strength of the communications foundation. 

While there are many different crises that impact businesses, from small to large, short to long-term, the pandemic is of course the crisis that rapidly springs to mind as having had the most impact on individuals, businesses and the world at large in this generation. While personal safety was, and remains, the number one priority, businesses cannot close shop indefinitely, but instead have to figure out the best way to continue to operate effectively and efficiently. 

One of the key characteristics of a crisis includes insufficient information, which can lead to speculation and nervousness throughout the business, compounded by the usually rapid escalation of events. A crisis can lead to a feeling of loss of control and a sense of panic. Leaders are under intense scrutiny and are expected to have answers, and quickly. Any attempts to actually not communicate anything, communicates something to the organisation and beyond.

Good communication systems are essential whether in a crisis situation or not, but it is in a crisis that this really comes to the forefront, because this is where the system is thoroughly stress-tested. Whether it is the establishment of communications policies where none really exist, the continued use of strong existing policies or the improvement of policies that have just been ‘good enough until now’, communication has become key to the very survival of businesses.

The pandemic required different responses from organisations depending upon the nature of their business. For many businesses, the focus was on enabling employees to work from home, with the support and infrastructure they needed to safely and securely carry out their roles. Even small actions could help this, such as immediately giving employees permission to purchase the IT infrastructure they would need before entering lockdown, with a reassurance that the company would reimburse the costs. 

For other businesses, for instance those in logistics, transport and other critical services, the focus was on keeping the workforce safe and protected in the field or on the road. In a scary and uncertain operating environment, reassurance from the business and communication in both directions are essential.

The unique operating model of family businesses, where decisions are often made together, with multigenerational stakeholders, brings many operational advantages. But when a crisis strikes, and family members must deal with prolonged periods of stress and physical separation, there is potential for a lapse in their decision-making capacity.

Good communication generates trust, creates alignment and builds relationships, not just between family members but within the wider organisation, but it can be easily overlooked as an effective management tool. Good communication comprises six key qualities: it is fast, continuous, transparent, authentic, two-way and consistent.

Fast, prompt communication is even more essential in a crisis. Any informational void will quickly be filled with conjecture or rumour, and it is important that the family business avoids this. While challenging, it is easier to prevent misinformation and misunderstandings than it is to untangle or undo them once they have occurred.

In any crisis, as the situation unfolds and rapidly changes, there will be an immediate flurry of continuous communications, ensuring that employees are informed of the latest updates. However, once a rhythm of communications has been established, it should not be discontinued when the crisis wanes. While the nature and the tone of communications will change, maintaining a flow of communications will be expected and should be a part of the everyday, structured, planned operations of the business moving forward.

While it is not appropriate that everybody in the organisation is privy to all the details and information with regard to everything, communications should be as open and transparent as they can be. If there are situations where some information is not yet known, for whatever reason, it is better to state this outright rather than to try to avoid the issue, or worse, provide information that is known to be misleading or incorrect. 

A family business has a unique opportunity to be honest and authentic in its crisis communications. By virtue of being a family organisation, it is more likely that there will be an underlying understanding of what values are important to the business and its operations, which can underpin communications with not just the rest of the business, but with the wider community.

Good communication is much more than a one-way broadcast: it is a two-way activity. Employees in particular need to be reassured that there is an opportunity for their voices to be heard and their concerns to be expressed, in a safe and open environment. This does not mean that the CEO needs to be on call and answer their telephone at any given hour of the day or night. What it does mean is that the workforce needs to know how they can reach the management team and that they are not being dismissed or ignored.

Inconsistency generates anxiety, and consistent communication is essential for building a trust-based relationship between the management team of family business and the wider business and its stakeholders. Consistency applies across all the different audiences of engagement, and across all the different channels of engagement. Documented communications policies and the tools to support these can be highly valuable in making sure communication is consistent.

At the height of the pandemic, technology was primarily used as a tool for communications. However, it has, perhaps unexpectedly, helped bring family businesses closer together, rather than providing a barrier to effective working, and has actually helped families to be more cohesive on a personal level. 

At the start of the crisis, there were two main uses for tools such as the Trusted Family business platform application. 

  • Firstly, it provided a secure means of rapidly and effectively communicating with the organisation’s workforce, whether remote users needing to carry out their day-to-day jobs, or a disconnected, mobile workforce on the road helping to keep the public safe and delivering vital supplies and services. All relevant information can be stored in one place, notifications can be delivered to mobile devices, and the platform can be used for feedback and conversation at every level of the business.
  • Secondly, technology could be used as a tool to support the management objectives of the company. Abruptly, meetings needed to be held virtually rather than in person, whether small executive team discussions or large shareholder conferences and AGMs. With a centralised governance platform in place, such meetings could be easily scheduled. All agendas, supporting documents and meeting minutes were accessible from a single place and the formalities of document approval and sign off could be carried out virtually.

The perhaps surprising change is that while originally an enforced measure, the use of enabling technology can result in better employee engagement and increased involvement of family members. 

Employees feel better informed and up to date, and can use features of such technology to communicate amongst themselves, perhaps chatting about topics that they previously didn’t have opportunity to. They can provide their input to company activities and decisions in an informal manner, and even have      the chance to provide anonymous feedback to management with regard to topics that have potential to be contentious or sensitive.

For the family members, being able to easily attend meetings in a virtual manner can lead to increased attendance at meetings. Previously a remote family member may not have attended an AGM in person      or would have been one of a few people who ‘dialled in’ to a conference call. Now that everybody uses a virtual platform to attend the meeting, attendance for everybody can take the same form, with everybody on the same footing. 

Once using a virtual platform is established, it becomes easier for family businesses to think about other ways to use technology to support their operations. From easy distribution of newsletters, to informal opinion surveys, to securely sharing documents, to implementing an engagement plan of regular postings, the options are limitless.

Additionally, since technology is now a mainstream way of doing business, people’s resistance to using it has greatly decreased, for instance rather than using audio-only, more people are now turning on their video cameras and ‘showing their face’ for calls and meetings, as this is now the norm. This has led to improved interpersonal relationships, and is supportive of less formal interactions where appropriate, with the increasing recognition that people, their home environments and their work lives are becoming increasingly and irreversibly intertwined.

For both employees and family members, using such technology every day as standard, has enabled them not only to manage crisis communications, but to put in place interactive, engaging, transparent systems. With better connectivity and engagement within and between family members and the business and the wider stakeholders, the strength of the family business can continue to grow, with established open and honest communications that will stand long after this, or any other crisis, has passed.