Working in internal comms can sometimes feel like firefighting. 44's Tom Abbott explores how we can use approaches and processes from crisis management to help put out the flames on these busy periods...

"My job description? I spend my life with two fire extinguishers strapped to my back putting out fire after fire!"

Does this sound like a familiar plea? It's one I heard recently at a conference and it got me thinking.

Firefighting is a necessary part of the life of internal communication, but we have all faced times when this has become the normal state of affairs. There are always high pressure periods where deadlines are tight, resources limited and the demands of stakeholders unrelenting.

These periods share many characteristics with crisis situations, even if we don't think of them in these terms. During a recent period of high activity, I was reminded of my previous experience of crisis communications management and it was interesting to reflect on the approaches and processes we used to deploy when in 'crisis-mode.'

So, what can we learn from crisis management that can benefit us during times of high stress?

1. Clear roles and responsibilities​

The best crisis management processes I have been involved in defined clear roles and responsibilities. During the crisis, we had set roles that people were trained to deliver. Normal reporting lines were dropped and everyone slotted into their crisis roles, clear on what was expected. We were also clear on which role was there to deliver what, and trusted colleagues to crack on. Everyone was trained on their role and given a chance to practice through role play and crisis scenarios. 

In the middle of an urgent deadline or resource squeeze, it can be tempting for everyone to throw their hat into the ring in the spirit of helping hard-pressed colleagues. Whilst this is well intentioned, it can risk confusing who is doing what or who is leading and making the critical decisions. 

Keeping clarity on roles and who is responsible for what remains important, even when all hands are thrown to the pump!

2. Keep clear records of decisions and actions

During a crisis, keeping clear records of decisions and actions is vital. It helps keep everyone informed, maintains clarity on responsibilities and provides a degree of legal protection!

When things get hectic in the day-to-day running of the IC function, good process can often be the first sacrifice as getting the job done takes priority. Try not to lose sight of the value of good record keeping. If colleagues go down sick or have to hand tasks over, not having an audit trail of decisions can cause real problems. It helps with managing stakeholders – whoever is managing the interface can easily track what's been happening without relying on individual conversations with hard pressed colleagues.

A decision board in the office can be a great way to track this in a visible, accessible way.

3. Who's checking the wellbeing of the team? 

We've all been there – urgent requests mean we have to work late, weekends or give up holiday. Crisis situations can be exhilarating, but they are also exhausting. Keeping an eye on how the team is performing can be forgotten as the focus is all on delivery.

In our crisis communication process we always had an individual separate from the team managing the crisis whose job it was to keep an eye on the wellbeing of the team. They looked out for people under stress, or who looked like they needed a sleep. They made recommendations to stand down team members who needed a break and cycle in fresh resources where available. We made sure there were several people who could fulfil a role, so the burden didn't fall on a single individual.

When teams are up against it, make sure someone is keeping an eye on the team and providing support when it's needed. 

4. Don't forget the day job, and prepare for what's next 

During a crisis, the immediate needs can feel overwhelming. Everything else becomes secondary. The problem is, the rest of the world doesn't stop and other stakeholders can still demand attention. Despite the urge for everyone to support the crisis effort, someone needs to step back and keep an eye on the normal day-to-day demands so that once the crisis is over, the team is not then thrown into a fresh crisis trying to catch up.

It's also useful to have someone taking a longer view – what are the longer-term needs of the team and stakeholders once this period is over? How can the team recover from the effort and get some recuperation once the immediate period is over? What lessons can be learned to improve processes in the future? These can be useful questions to have someone thinking about during the intense period. 

Whilst we can't label every busy period a crisis, there are things we can learn from crisis management that can help teams through difficult times and increase the chances of a rapid and successful recovery. 

As we all move from task to task, it's rare that we get to step back and really think about the operation of internal communication – how we demonstrate the value not of an individual campaign or channel, but the value of the function itself.

Working with the Institute of Internal Communications (IoIC), we've designed a new workshop to create a space for reflection and insight to really help you get to grips with how we articulate our value to our leadership and wider organisation.

Look out for the announcement of the first iteration and details of how to book.