Internal communication in a crisis

About the author

Kevin is a co-founder of PR Academy and editor/co-author of Exploring Internal Communication published by Routledge. Kevin leads the CIPR Internal Communication Diploma course. PhD, MBA, BA Hons, PGCE, FCIPR, CMgr, MCMI.

Crisis communication researchers have tended to focus on external communication and largely ignored the importance of internal communication. But this is now changing with a growing body of knowledge on internal crisis communication and the learned experience of communication with employees during the pandemic.

In this short piece, I outline some of the findings from research and practice that can be used to develop internal crisis communication preparation and planning.

I will be talking about internal crisis communication in more depth in PR Academy’s next Crisis Communication Hub free webinar on 24 March 2022.


In a ground breaking journal article published in 2011 Danish academics Finn Frandsen and Winni Johansen challenged existing research, claiming that no efforts were made within it to describe or explain the differentia specifica of internal crisis communication. Where internal communication was discussed, Frandsen and Johansen state it was very sender oriented.

Their work is notable for the distinction they make for employees as a stakeholder group. They argue that employees ‘typically feel another sense of belonging and commitment to their job and to their workplace unlike an external stakeholder who may have other kinds of interests in an organization’. This is a fundamental point as it leads to a different approach for internal crisis communication than for external communication.

In their 2011 paper, Frandsen and Johansen set out a new integrated framework for internal crisis communication that incorporates the following stages and focal points:

  • Precrisis: prevent and prepare
  • Crisis event: handle the crisis and make sense
  • Postcrisis: learn and change

The emphasis on making sense, learning and changing is important as it has consequences for the approach taken for internal crisis communication.

Internal communication during the pandemic

Although the pandemic has not been a crisis for every organisation, for many it spurred significant changes which had a substantial and immediate impact on employees. Organisations had to find new ways of leading, organising and communicating when employees were told to adopt social distancing at work or work from home. Some had to quickly deliver new products and services or fundamentally change the way that they served customers. Others had to furlough employees or make them redundant at short notice. In a large number of organisations, the pandemic therefore involved dramatically unexpected situations with high levels of complexity and ambiguity. In such circumstances, employees naturally seek information, reassurance and support from their employer.

In 2021 Rita Men and I co-edited a Special Edition of the Journal of Communication Management which focused on internal communication during the pandemic. Six papers were accepted which focused on research with employees in the early stages of the pandemic in 2020.

Some of the key themes that emerged are:

  • Sensemaking
  • Empathy
  • Reassurance
  • Transparency
  • Reciprocity
  • Social resources (information, status and love)
  • Listening
  • Long-term relationship management
  • Employee advocacy

In terms of sensemaking, Sarah Bowman and Liz Yeomans identified three core narratives: competence and resilience; empathy, reassurance and recognition; and community and location.

Sarah Ecklebe and Natascha Löffler found that employees’ need for information is high during—and especially at the beginning of—a crisis situation. Employees want to be able to understand the crisis situation as early as possible and are therefore on a constant hunt for relevant information. This research also revealed that a positive perception of internal communication during a crisis has a significant positive effect on perceived trustworthiness and commitment.

Sabine Einwiller, Christopher Ruppel and Julia Stranzl grounded their study in social exchange theory, where relationships are based on reciprocity. They found that an informational communication strategy, which includes not only instructional information but also information about the effects of the crisis on the organisation and employees’ work situation, is important during the acute phase of the crisis as it significantly fosters employees’ acceptance of managerial decisions. Importantly, the information needs to be substantial (relevant, timely, complete, understandable, accurate, and reliable).

Finally, Marlene Neill and Shannon Bowen highlight the ethical responsibilities that organisations have towards their employees in a crisis. They argue that listening is inherent in fulfilling the role of an ethical conscience, requiring moral dignity and respect for employees. Additionally, the authors note that listening can provide the emotional support and help to identify the resources that employees need during challenging times.

This greater understanding that we now have about the communication employees need and expect during a crisis can now be used for effective crisis preparedness planning which will enable organisations to be on the front foot when the next crisis hits.

Internal Comms Crisis Webinar

Register for webinar

Title: Internal Communication In A Crisis

Date: 24 March 2022

Speakers: Chris Tucker and Dr. Kevin Ruck

Tickets are free but spaces are limited. Secure your space today!