Get ahead of the rumor mill with tight, predictable communication systems in your organization and with your team.
How well does communication happen within your organization? When I work with teams in the Fire Service, a common theme is that communication needs improvement. Working in HR, I noticed that every lawsuit, EEOC claim, mediation, conflict, grievance, general discomfort with a coworker, reason for leaving a job, etc. typically comes down to a communication moment gone wrong. This is something we can continuously work to improve because no one wants to spend their time (or money) embroiled in those conflicts. Let me emphasize this … all that drama came down to ONE communication moment gone wrong.
An article by Forbes cited that 70% of all organizational information comes through the grapevine. The less formal communication exist has a direct correlation to employees relying on the rumor mill. However, when it comes to who is sharing formal information, 74% said they would believe their supervisor even more than top leadership (who were only believed 42% of the time). It showed that without that link from their direct leader, staff members were much more likely to believe the rumor mill.
So let’s close the gap! Direct supervisors are the most trusted sources of information. So by having a solid way of passing information down the chain and backing it up with consistent communication vehicles is the key. (see Pt. 1 of this blog here to review your communication strategy)
Imagine a leadership challenge such as budget cuts and even layoff of personnel. If something this serious is not handled well by senior leaders, there could be some real chaos in the field. I worked with a team who went through a layoff of 12 personnel. Leaders had to choose who would be laid off and a methodology to be used to deploy that layoff. Then they had to plan the day of the layoff and how to bring the remaining employees through it. It was critical to keep the planning meetings confidential (avoiding panic) and to create a communication plan that would notify everyone within a short window of time. We worked for weeks and the result was actually a smooth event. The solid messages allowed rumor mongers to be corrected.
For example, a rumor started that we were marching people out of the building with a security guard. That simply did not happen and employees actually started correcting those spreading that rumor.
There are lots of details when it comes to a crisis like this, but using the following method of curating your messages will help immensely. How? Here’s a good method based on the chocolate fountains we see at weddings (You know, where kids are sticking their fingers in the chocolate?). Picture the information, like the chocolate, cascading down the chain. If done well, the information will get to the bottom in an uninterrupted or edited fashion. Now if a finger makes its way into the flow of the fountain, we can see two flows… one unedited and one a rumor. By the time that chocolate makes it to the bottom, it can cause confusion and even toxicity in the message.
Tips to cascading communication well:
Verify message and use rule of 3 – be clear and concise with major points, who is handling, and when you will tell them more.
Create talking points and review with leadership team – ideally, these will be used by all so information is consistent.
Shoot holes in talking points to refine them – do this before releasing so you can anticipate most questions or concerns.
Tighten up Talking points and plan timing of message roll-out
Plan the progression of delivery
Everyone hears it from a leader first. (Ex. Chief)
Everyone hears from their own leader also (Battalion Chiefs hear from their supervisor, Company officers hear from theirs, and Firefighters hear it from their company officer)
Tell them the background so they know why
No going off script – before one relays the info, they should have all questions answered for full buy in
Publish articles and keep consistent with talking points
Consider being as transparent as possible and if there are things you are unable to say or don’t know yet….say so. Tell the team when you will follow up in a specific time and then keep that promise. We all know that not every decision or announcement is going to make everyone happy, but if they get good information they can trust, they are more likely to feel like they are treated fairly. If personnel are on vacation or off shift, make plans to connect with them and let them know a message is coming. They will hear about it from the rumor mill anyway – better if all supervisors make effort to explain to individuals directly.
I’ve seen this work in times of crisis and also with routine messaging. The key is to be deliberate and proactive in your communication to defuse rumors, calm potential panic, and have reliable methods of delivery that are known and trusted by members. #crisiscommunication #bravefireleader #fireleader #firechief #fireleadership #firechieftraining #onlinefirechieftraining