Town hall meetings play a key role in crisis communication.
Hosting a crisis management town hall could help address concerns within a company at a larger scale. A good town hall can help realign a company, reduce panic and stress in troubled times, and reinstate trust in management. Yet when badly managed, a crisis management town hall could do more harm than good.
Here are 8 tips on how to run an effective crisis management town hall.
1. Measure sentiments and concerns ahead of time
What are people saying? What are their worries?
The town hall should not be the first step taken to understand the situation. Instead of going into a town hall meeting blind, try sending an online poll or opening up a Q&A in advance. Holding smaller breakout sessions could also help give further insights to what concerns need to be addressed.
2. Ensure all stakeholders are present
The town hall may not result in all the employees concerns being resolved, but knowing that all relevant stakeholders are present will help employees know that people with decision-making power are hearing them out.
If it’s about a retrenchment exercise, ensure that the HR team is present. If it’s a PR crisis, ensure that the PR and marketing team are present.
3. Get all the facts right
When communicating about a crisis, it’s important to make sure that all the facts are accurate. Any false information in a time of tension could backfire and affect employees’ trust in a company.
While it may be tempting to publicly address the problem as soon as possible, don’t do so until you get the facts exactly right. That way, everyone goes into the town hall meeting with the same information, assuring a more productive use of everyone's time.
No amount of over-communication is too much when alignment is at stake. - Michael Karnjanaprakorn, CEO of Skillshare (via the World Economic Forum)
Once you ensure all the facts are accurate, go into the townhall facts first. Share all the known information about the crisis, the steps taken in response, and outline all the steps.
Even if the information may seem widely known, oversharing in a crisis is better than undersharing. The uncertainty resulting from the crisis can cause employees to feel anxious. Information - even if it’s bad news - can be calming.
A frank approach to sharing information also shows a willingness to approach the town hall with honesty.
5. Adopt an appropriate tone
An appropriate tone doesn’t just match the severity of the situation, it also conveys an appropriate emotion and portraying an accurate relationship between the parties involved. Keeping things classy and professional is a given, but understanding the point of view of others can help adjust the way you approach some people.
To avoid any oversight in the words used, involve your HR and PR team in discussions on what might be asked, and align on the best way to approach them.
6. Acknowledge the concerns
As much as possible, avoid dismissing employees concerns. Even if a discussion is going off-track, acknowledging the person's emotions and experience can go a long way in easing the tension.
One trick to show acknowledgement is by repeating what was said. In conversation design, repetition is a method to gain confirmation and trust between parties. In crisis town halls, this could be very useful to show understanding and make employees feel heard. Take this example:
Approach 1: We do not show favouritism. Our promotion scheme works like this…
Approach 2: Thank you for staying and voicing out your frustrations about our approach to career advancement. It is not in the values of this company to award promotions based on favouritism instead of merit. I will speak to HR and look into our current advancement methods.
For Approach 1, the conversation already evolved into a “he says, she says” situation. There is no effort being shown to understand or build common ground. For Approach 2, the manager takes the time to match what the employee says. He acknowledges the emotion that the employee is showing, and outlines the problem that has been raised to him.
7. Read the crowd
As the town hall continues, consistently read the sentiment of the crowd and adapt accordingly. Having members of the HR team seated around the auditorium could help suss out how the meeting is going. A live audience engagement tool like Pigeonhole Live could also give you data on how people are rating the answers provided by management.
By keeping an ear to the ground, you could gauge whether the town hall should be extended, cut short, or if a follow-up town hall needs to be scheduled.
8. Take responsibility, follow up with actions
Crisis management town halls walk a fine line between talk and action. While the town hall is literally an “all-talk” situation, follow up with an action plan at every step. Town hall meetings are a way for management to be accessible for the staff, and that there are expectations tied to that. Especially in a crisis, a leader is expected to step up and take responsibility.
So instead of delegating to a committee or looking for a scapegoat, having someone take personal responsibility with the follow-up can make a huge difference in a team's morale.
Don’t expect the town hall to be a fix-all situation. People will come into the meeting confused and even angry. Instead, aim to build common ground, to share information, and build a space for honest communication.
Post-town hall checklist:
- Meeting Minutes
- More information on the crises
- Questions asked during the town hall
- Management’s responses to the questions
- Post-town hall feedback survey
- Other feedback channels