When a company experiences a PR crisis, the effects on its workers, unlike top management, often go uncovered by the media. It’s an underreported story because too often lower level employees become cannon fodder, even though they’ve done nothing wrong, as top management looks to save their jobs by singling out scapegoats.
The effects on blameless, long-time and loyal employees can destroy lives, as management circles the wagons looking for ways to save itself. Friendships disappear. The promises of “stick with me and you’ll go far,” are forgotten. Niccolo Machiavell’s famous quote from “The Prince”: “The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present,” becomes a reality. Here are a few ways company employees may be affected by a crisis:
• A company with a PR crisis might have to revise its plans. This could lead to employees being terminated.
• A company in crisis will try to protect high-level employees at the expense of lower level employees, hoping that announcing terminations will make the problem go away.
• Companies in crisis often bypass their communications staff and engage outside, so-called crisis communications experts. This can be a morale breaker to the staff who feels management doesn’t trust them to handle important decisions.
• Employees whose job it is to maintain contact with the media are told to cease media contact, another morale breaker.
• Companies in crisis might feel that PR/publicity efforts are dangerous because contacting media outlets with story pitches can lead to reporters asking questions about the crisis. Companies may instead want to reach the public by using controlled media efforts: print ads, websites and TV commercials. Doing so can also mean a reduction in the in-house PR staff and/or an agency account team.
• Depending on the cause, a crisis can have an important affect on employees’ self worth. If the crisis is caused by a report that a company has been deceiving the public, employees might feel they’ve also been deceived and form a cynical view of management, causing work to suffer.
• On the other hand, some employees might rally around their company by denying the allegations — if the corporation denied them — and look for something positive to say, mistakenly believing they’ll be rewarded by management.
• For employees, especially those whose job it is to maintain contact with the media, defending a company in a PR crisis situation can make the media lose confidence in employees that skirt the truth, try to defend employers’ actions and give boiler plate answers to questions. This could lead to such employees no longer being trusted, which is certain to limit the effectiveness of the employees’ media outreach efforts in the future.
• Also, some employees might feel the company’s actions were so awful they no longer want to work there and begin looking for another job. This is especially true if employees feel the company was not truthful them.
In extreme cases, certain employees — especially those who feel unappreciated by management — might become whistle blowers.
• As the PR crisis grows, all level of employees might look for ways to protect their jobs at the expense of others, causing disruption in the workplace.
• Stock values of employees’ investments in their company may decrease.
• Innocent mid-level managers might become victims of new management’s house cleaning to give the impression that there’s a new culture in the company.
A company’s PR crisis might have a negative affect on the social life of an employee, who might be tired of being questioned about the crisis by family and friends, especially if illegal activities and sexual harassment episodes become public.
In situations involving sexual harassment, a company’s first actions may be to attempt to cover it up when it involves top management or a rainmaker. When that fails, “We didn’t know that was happening,” is often the next top management response when the crisis becomes public.
And so it was yesterday, so it is today and so it will be tomorrow.
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a Senior VP and Senior Counselor at Burson-Marsteller. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at email@example.com.