Inside Out: When Internal Communications Go External

change-matters-newcropped6 ways to get ahead of the problem

It’s every CEO’s worst nightmare. You’re in the midst of a change initiative, you’ve had to make some tough decisions, and a few people have been asked to leave. But you’re sticking to the plan, and you think things are going as well as can be expected. You can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Then one of your best clients calls to say that they’re worried about next year’s contract and thinking about reducing their spend with you. You reassure them that everything is fine – and you think that it is. But then you hear from a supplier who’s wondering if you’re still going to be paying your invoices on time, and expressing concern about their long-term relationship with you.

You’re perplexed – until you happen to call a former colleague with whom you’ve stayed friendly and he greets you with, “What the hell is going on over there? I hear you won’t be around this time next year!”

And suddenly you discover that a couple of employees involved in the change have been more confused and disgruntled than you realized. They’ve been spreading the word, and it hasn’t been positive. They’ve been so vocal, in fact, that the word on the street is that your organization is on a collision course with disaster – and that’s starting to make your clients, suppliers, and other stakeholders nervous.

So what do you do, before someone forwards a confidential internal email to the competition or, worse, decides to pen an op-ed about the state of affairs in a daily newspaper like Greg Smith did in 2012?

Managing change communications in a crisis
  1. Don’t panic. When you start hearing negative rumors from a couple of different sources, you can start to think that ‘the whole world’ is saying you’re about to capsize, or that your entire workforce is staging a mutiny. Chances are, things aren’t that bad, and you’ve probably caught it early. So don’t go into full-on crisis mode until you’ve had a chance to speak to your senior management team and get an accurate assessment.
  2. Don’t look for scapegoats. You’re probably feeling betrayed and angry, but looking for someone to blame, fire or castigate is only going to exacerbate the problem. What’s really happening is that you’re getting negative feedback about the change – you’re just not getting it through the most productive channels. But negative feedback can be a good way to gain insight about how the change is being implemented – so instead of looking for someone to blame, look for the opportunity the situation is providing you to improve the situation.
  3. Help employees to see the big picture. When quite a few of your employees are speaking to outsiders in a negative way, it’s usually a good sign that they don’t really understand why the changes are happening or why they’re necessary and maybe even a good thing for the organization. So you probably need to beef up your messages about what these changes mean for the long-term health of the company.
  4. Help employees see the little picture. If the source of the negative messages is a handful of people or a specific department, it’s likely that those people or that department is feeling disengaged from the change or that they’re being shortchanged in some way. Arrange for one-on-one (or one-on-small-team) mentoring and communication to help them understand their role in the changes and how their full participation is important.
  1. Be as honest as possible, as often as possible. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: During a change process, it’s virtually impossible to communicate too much or too often. The more honest information you can share with employees, the more likely they are to ‘get’ the reasons for the change, and the less likely they are to spread negative messages outside the organization.
  2. Revisit your communication plan. It’s always better to prevent a crisis than to have to address it after the fact – that’s why every change management initiative should have a well-defined communication plan built into the overall strategy. However, if you find yourself facing challenges, don’t just go into defensive mode: Revisit your communication plan and make adjustments (more communications, additional channels, different messages) as required.


Beth Banks Cohn
Beth Banks Cohn
BETH is dedicated to helping individuals and companies implement business changes that actually work. Beth believes in the ripple effect – that change handled well benefits everyone in an organization, over and over again. As a recognized expert in change as well as corporate culture, Beth consults domestically and internationally with a wide range of disciplines and businesses. Beth is the author of two books: ChangeSmart™: Implementing Change Without Lowering your Bottom Line and Taking the Leap: Managing Your Career in Turbulent Times…and Beyond (with Roz Usheroff).

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  1. Just proves my theory that the solution to almost every problem is better communication. It is easy to discount the human factor and forget that emotions happen. When change happens, everyone needs to know they are a valued member of the organization. Thank for a great article.

    • Thanks Christine. Totally agree that communication is the solution to most problems – especially when it comes to change. No one has ever said “stop communicating – it’s too much information already!”, at least as far as I know.

  2. Some of my clients had leaked information as part of risk management. Each level of information had their own procedure on what to do when the information was leaked. Aspects of the leak included legal counsel, PR, and employee notification emails.

  3. Excellent recovery plan, Beth. I especially like your focus on honesty with the company so the problem doesn’t snowball. And I definitely agree with jphilpin below – anything we say/write/do can be shared these days. We have to be ready for info to get out.

    • Thanks Carol. Honesty is really the easiest road. It’s tough to remember what you told to who if you keep making stuff up. That would give me a headache, in more ways than one!

  4. I personally assume that just as anything that is online – anywhere is no longer secret – no matter what you might think – so the idea that there are ‘internal communications and ‘external communications’ is similarly flawed.

    Work on that premise – and you wont be disappointed.