An Introduction to Internal Crisis Communication
The following is an excerpt from The Evangelists: Insights from Leaders of the Nation’s Most Beloved Brands. Written by Pabcgi Dizon, this chapter is titled “Steadying the Ship When You Can't Take to the Skies.” In it, Charo Logarta Lagamon, the Corporate Communications Director of Cebu Pacific, is interviewed about how the organization executes its strategy in reinventing brand their identity.
Addressing Issues Internally to Get Results Externally
When the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the whole world, one would’ve been hard-pressed to find a business that wasn’t affected one way or another. After all, lockdowns meant to keep people safe at home also meant people couldn’t go out and spend.
But if there’s any business that felt the pinch more than others, it would be the airline Cebu Pacific. Travel restrictions and bans all over the world suddenly put flights to a grinding halt, leaving pilots, cabin crew, and thousands of support staff with no work at all.
Yet Charo Logarta Lagamon is proof that even when a company’s bread and butter is taken away from them, that’s no reason to sit there and be passive about it. Currently, Lagamon works with beverages company Pernod-Ricard, one of the largest wines and spirits companies in the world, but she functioned as Cebu Pacific’s Corporate Communications Director from 2017 until August 2020. Lagamon had a hand in everything from corporate social responsibility, media relations, and now most importantly, crisis communications.
Lagamon first emphasized that external crisis communication cannot function without addressing things internally, which is mainly done through the human resources department, with her team providing guidance. Thus, this means that employees had to be updated constantly on the state of the company during the pandemic: how much the company was losing, how many employees may have to be laid off, when pay cuts would take effect, and more.
Though these types of information may be hard to swallow at first, Lagamon maintained that proper communication means ensuring employees get information first. According to her, everything that they put out must also address the questions employees have been frequently asking. “We don’t want them to have to worry about these things from another source,” Lagamon explained. “It’s better to be transparent than risk creating an atmosphere of rumor-mongering and distrust.”
It’s also equally important then that information is communicated through the best channels. In Cebu Pacific’s case, information is usually disseminated through town halls but the advent of the pandemic has seen the company do much of their remote work on Microsoft Teams. This shift to digital ensures that although they are all apart, information reaches Cebu Pacific employees swiftly.
There’s also the added benefit of keeping employees engaged. “What we’ve been doing is that within Microsoft Teams, we have little subgroups dedicated to different interests. So there’s groups dedicated to cooking, exercise, and also keeping up mental health,” Lagamon said.
Aside from these recreational and social activities, the company offers online courses through their coaches for useful skills tailored for every position in the company through what they also call Cebu Pacific University. All of these help employees realize that although they can’t physically be together, Cebu Pacific is with them every step of the way.
“More than just an outlet for them to have fun, it’s also crucial in keeping up morale amidst the crisis,” Lagamon explained.
Alongside studying the ship internally, Lagamon’s priority focused on the external aspect of crisis communications. In this case, she prefers to use a combination of proactive and reactive approaches in communicating with external stakeholders, depending on who is being engaged and the nuances of the situation. In terms of communicating the help Cebu Pacific does for those in need―be it stranded passengers or flying much-needed personal protective equipment and medical supplies at no cost to donors―she prefers to let actions do the speak rather than a company press release or social media post.
For instance, when the company’s executives took a voluntary pay cut just to keep Cebu Pacific viable, it wasn’t even something they wanted to talk about, much less to the press. Lagamon revealed that the word only got out as a representative from sister company Summit Media heard about it and turned it into a story. Though it was unplanned, the story went a long way in reassuring employees that their leaders were also in the same boat as them.
Cebu Pacific may have faced turbulence, but this hasn’t stopped the carrier from incorporating humanitarian assistance in its cargo operations.
Lagamon mentioned that an estimated 60% to 70% of the funds from their partner non government organizations are allocated to the logistics of their work, particularly for transporting their relief goods, so Cebu Pacific offers their shipment services pro bono. While this seems only timely in light of COVID-19, the airline has regularly provided this type of service during other calamities such as the siege in Marawi and the earthquakes in Davao. Lagamon added that they charge nothing in the hopes that these organizations can allocate more budget towards acquiring more goods to send to those most in need.
Though Lagamon maintained that the company does nothing to actively publicize these CSR initiatives, she admitted that word gets out about them anyway. “For the most part, people post about it organically. After all, it’s second nature now to post on social media,” Lagamon said. “All we do is gently nudge them to remember to tag us in their posts.”
When they do need to speak directly with the press, Lagamon uses her background as a journalist―having worked with network giant ABS-CBN Corporation as a broadcast journalist and news anchor as well in her early career―to her advantage. After all, you don’t spend years compiling reports and breaking news stories without picking up a thing or two. She applies the same journalistic standards she grew used to when communicating with the media, making sure to give them stories that are relevant and timely.
“Of course, you don’t need a journalistic background to do what I do,” Lagamon said. “Just keep in mind their perspective: they’ll most likely want you to answer whatever is in the news. In my case, I had to make clear what happened to people with canceled flights, etc.”
Overall, Cebu Pacific is proof that a solid crisis communications strategy is key to weathering any challenge. Though COVID-19 has temporarily grounded the airline’s planes, it’s thanks to people like Lagamon that Cebu Pacific will always be ready to take flight no matter what comes their way.
To get more insights from other marketing leaders like Charo Logarta Lagamon, please check out the full book, available for purchase here.
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