What The Martian Teaches Us About Employee Communications in a Crisis

BY JEREMY BOYLEN, Media and Communications Manager, Legal Services Commission of South Australia
Jeremy Boylen, Media and Communications Manager,
Legal Services Commission of South Australia

With last evening’s Academy Awards dominating the conversation, we thought it would be instructive to see what the heralded film The Martian can teach us about communications. In the film, things go badly quickly for NASA and the agency adds to the crisis by making some communications errors.

Few of us will confront the kind of dilemma NASA faced in the movie, yet many of us may need to manage staff communications when a crisis hits our organization. As a reader of PR News, you’ll recognize NASA’s mistakes below—but what about your bosses? Do they get it?

The Martian presents an opportunity to start a discussion with managers about how to communicate with staff in a crisis. In truth, NASA’s managers might have been in a no-win situation. Perhaps I am being unfair to them. Still, the film can serve as a launchpad for a discussion about employee communications during a crisis.

We have a Problem

A massive storm forces NASA’s crew to hastily abandon Mars, leaving behind botanist Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon), who is thought to have died. Problem is, NASA later discovers Watney is alive, but decides not to tell the remaining crew members traveling back to Earth.

NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels): “If Watney is really alive, we don’t want the Ares 3 crew to know. They have another 10 months on their trip home. Space travel is dangerous. They need to be alert and undistracted.”

Alone on Mars, Watney is furious when informed that the crew has not been told of his survival.

Watney: “They don’t know I’m alive? What the f*** is wrong with you?”

Flight Director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean): “The longer we wait, the worse it’s gonna get…we need to tell the crew.”

NASA’s Mistake

In the film, NASA withholds the truth from staff until it feels it has a complete plan of action to cope with the crisis it faces. This is understandable, but counterproductive. Astronauts and employees perceive withholding of information as a lack of transparency, honesty and goodwill on an employer’s part. At best they feel left out, at worst deceived.

Flight Director Henderson: “I’m the one who decides what’s best for the crew. They deserve to know.”

NASA Director Sanders: “Once there’s a real rescue plan, we’ll tell them….”

A dead fish smells worse at week’s end than at the start. If your brand is in a crisis, don’t delay telling staff until you have a complete solution. Avoid going off half-cocked, but don’t make the common mistake of unduly keeping staff in the dark up to the point where they are first told about a major problem.

Hang a lantern on your problem before someone else does. If someone else exposes the crisis, you lose control of the message—and staff feel disenfranchised.

Employees aren’t in space. When there’s a crisis, staff get wind of it and word gets out. If no message is sent to staff, it leaves an information vacuum that is quickly filled with rumor and misinformation. If staff communications are poorly executed, it can be a bit like sending a signal into deep space: The message can be lost or become distorted.

Timing Counts: If possible, don’t spring all the bad news on staff at the 11th hour. Employees often need some warning that an announcement is to be made about a major issue that could change their professional lives. A sudden and unexpected cascade of bad news can hit employees hard. If possible, help them prepare by giving a heads-up about a significant announcement.

Flight Director Henderson: “Mark Watney is still alive…We found out two months ago and…decided not to tell you.”

Crew: “Two months? Oh my God.”

Seven Words to Work By: The next seven words are important. Honesty and transparency build trust and engagement. This always is true, but especially in a crisis. There’s a reason I put honesty ahead of transparency. As we see in the film, NASA can’t be completely transparent since not every detail should be shared.

If you can’t give staff all the information because some aspects are still being worked out, say so and explain why. If possible, outline when those details will be made available. Even if managers can’t communicate hard facts or updated information, regular contact with staff will demonstrate the reassuring values of goodwill, honesty and transparency.

Don’t just communicate the management decision—communicate the reasons for it too. A major announcement sometimes follows weeks of discussion at management level, but staff aren’t aware of that. Be sure to provide clear and comprehensive reasons for a large change that responds to a crisis.

Be clear, factual, consistent and honest when explaining the reasons for company decisions. Outline the process that’s underway to respond to the problem, explain what happens next and be clear about what you need employees to do.

When it comes to staff communications in a crisis, it’s better to regret what you did rather than what you didn’t do. It is far better to overcommunicate than to undercommunicate. Repeat your decisions and the reasons for them.

CONTACT: Jeremy.Boylen@lsc.sa.gov.au

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 29, 2016, issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.