NBC News Crisis: The Pitfalls of Binary Thinking and Lessons for Internal Communications

Battle Creek, Michigan / United States - December 18, 2019: President Trump with Republican National Convention Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel and Michigan Republican Party Cochair Terry Bowman

Everything that is internal is external; everything that is external is internal.

NBC learned this the hard way when it hired former Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel as an on-air contributor back in March. Yet, as soon as NBC made the announcement, employees were swift in their repudiation of McDaniel, whom they described as someone who “gaslights” and engages in “character assassination.” NBCU News Group chair Cesar Conde shared a memo with staff shortly thereafter explaining the decision not to go forward with the hire—primarily because of employee blowback.

Planning Ahead

This debacle is one of many scenarios that remind us of why deliberate, well-coordinated and consistent internal communications are even more important in today’s climate where sensitive information leaks are becoming commonplace. As brands and communications leaders consider when, where and how to deploy proactive internal communication strategies, there are a few—but by no means exhaustive—scenarios to consider.

  1. First and foremost, if potential mergers and acquisitions are in the pipeline, get your internal comms strategy in place. M&A deals are subject to protracted financial, legal and business scrutiny that necessitate working with outside parties. That’s the reality. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start asking the right questions and planning to shore up an effective change management communications strategy.

To kick off the process, it’s helpful to audit what’s already in place, asking questions such as: What’s the size and scope of this deal? Which employees will it affect? In which locations? What will the integration look like? Will employees’ day-to-day tasks be impacted? If so, how?

These questions provide an important mechanism through which to organize and plan M&A-driven internal communications.

  1. The 2024 presidential election is heating up. Know which hot-button topics you are ready to engage on. Before taking a stance on certain issues externally—be it gun violence, the war in Gaza or abortion—think first and foremost about how your employees will respond.

How will frontline workers respond compared to corporate staff? For companies with geographically dispersed workforces, how would, for example, employees in the Middle East react versus those in the U.S.? Are these issues aligned with your brand mission and values?

These types of questions help establish criteria through which to view these issues; making planning and decision-making more effective.

  1. If there’s an inkling of discussion on leadership succession, get a move on how it’s communicated internally. Communicating CEO leadership transitions is a highly complex and sensitive undertaking, prone to media and investor leaks. If you’re an employee at a well-known company—or any company, for that matter—the last way you want to find out such news is by scrolling through LinkedIn.

One doesn’t need to look too far to see how this is playing out for Boeing and the inevitable, adverse impact on employee morale. With any newly-appointed leader, employees will want to understand who this person is, what their values are, how their vision aligns with the company’s and, ultimately, how they will be impacted.

Preventing Pitfalls

In an environment where information is highly susceptible to leaks, it’s time to recalibrate thinking from if something leaks, to when something leaks. Of course, this doesn’t mean that sensitive information can’t be kept confidential; in many cases, that’s the rule, not the exception. However, there are countless examples that show what happens to a company’s reputation, employee morale and overall valuation after forgetting the time-old adage: everything internal is external; everything external is internal.

Matt Panichas is SVP, Corporate, KWT Global