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How manufacturers can communicate well in a crisis

Apr 06, 2020

Aside from a few office staff who can work remotely, manufacturing is largely an on-site business. Effective communications are an ever-present need, but never more so than during a crisis like COVID-19. Yet manufacturer may not communicate the same way as a professional services firm whose work is now mainly virtual.

A professional services firm can blast an electronic message to thousands of clients and employees and track receipt in real time. By contrast, a manufacturing enterprise might need multiple methods and modes of communications to reach  every supervisor and line worker on the first, second and third shifts, plus a supply chain that may span the globe.

If you’re a manufacturer who needs to keep your staff and trading partners informed during uncertain times, use the following guidance. And if you have employees working remotely as well, see our tips for communicating with remote workers during a crisis.

1. Commit to communicate

First, we advise our clients to commit to communicating as forthrightly as possible during a crisis.

Demonstrate leadership and be transparent. Honest communications will show any stakeholder — whether a trading partner or a team member — that you’re on top of the situation, even if there is uncertainty. By communicating proactively, you demonstrate an openness to dialog, including from suppliers, managers and front line workers. Create a method for communication in both directions, information out and also a way to answer the questions that come back from your stakeholders.

Control the message. If you’re not talking, know that members of your staff and supply chain are —on social media, on the production line, on break and after work. Open communication allows you to extend the same message to everyone and control what’s being said. This prevents rumors and false information which only creates more communications headaches. It is better to communicate frequently, providing what you do know at the time, rather than waiting for ‘the perfect time’ to get your message out. Frequent updates are a straightforward way to manage the message and shut down the rumor mill.

Manage the coverage. As manufacturers in Illinois discovered during the new coronavirus pandemic, many media outlets want to speak with workers. They want your employees’ take on your response to a crisis. Workers who have already been well-informed by you are more apt to speak positively, share accurate information, or decline invitations for interviews. Keeping that first line of managers and supervisors well-informed is absolutely critical. They will often be asked for their opinions; from both the media as well as staff. Make sure they have accurate information.

Seize the opportunity to improve. Even the most well-run companies discover opportunities to improve during times of crisis, including in communications. Building and executing a communications plan during a crisis is an opportunity to shore up these gaps and be better prepared for next time. Here’s one opportunity: A National Association of Manufacturers member survey in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis found an almost 50/50 split between companies with and without an emergency response plan. As you shore up your response plans, consider adding a crisis communications component.

2. Develop and implement a communications plan

Next, we recommend creating a communications plan as the best way to speak consistently during a crisis. This way everyone — from the chief operating officer to the chief line operator — is on the same page when a crisis threatens operations. Here’s how to put a plan together:

Define your audience – identify the key stakeholders. Manufacturing today is not like Henry Ford’s production line. Modern manufacturers are often linked to a series of trading partners. Steel may go to one factory, and the parts produced there assembled in another. That’s one important audience group.

Another key audience group to involve in communications is leadership, management and staff. We know from studies that insufficient communication to and among employees causes large companies to lose over $60 million a year. So, your communications plan should account for external audiences (e.g., other manufacturers and suppliers) and internal audiences (e.g., company leaders, managers and supervisors, and line staff).

Outline the channels and tactics. Here, account for the different ways each audience receives messages. Although the communications are the same for each audience group, the mode and method of delivery may be different. Ideas include making morning announcements over the loudspeakers; posting flyers in breakrooms, at clock-in and wash stations, and in cafeterias; sending messages via email, social media and websites; posting blogs and news releases; and issuing messages in leave and earnings statements.

Craft the messages. Next, create messages for each audience group and subgroup. For instance, external stakeholders will want to know how the crisis is impacting your ability to maintain staffing levels, supply chains, quality levels and shipment targets. Internal audiences will be concerned with how to stay safe at work or policy changes that could impact work hours, pay, benefits and job security.

Develop the timeline. Consider timing messages carefully. If one of your key suppliers is based on the other side of the world in a different time zone, schedule an email communication so it arrives when the contact is in the office. Similarly, make sure each shift receives every communication.  

Monitor and measure. Communications receive buy-in when your audiences see you listening to feedback, even if you don’t always act on it. It’s important to monitor social media channels to provide updates and respond to misinformation. On-site, supervisors can visit breakrooms (from a socially safe distance) to solicit input. Issue surveys (both paper and online) to invite opinions or set up in-person and online forums to encourage dialogue. And don’t be afraid to credit good ideas in public. Measure what you do, repeat what’s working and scale back what’s not.

Learn from others. As always, consult with trade groups, trusted business advisers, and other industry peers to exchange ideas on crisis communications and management.  

How Wipfli can help

Looking for additional advice on how to keep your manufacturing business moving forward in a time of crisis? Stop by our resource center for news and analysis on shop safety, stress tests, cash flow management and much more. Or contact your Wipfli advisor for assistance.


Brett Polglaze
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