A good internal communications strategy is like a fire extinguisher: you don’t want to discover you don’t have one when you need it. It’s far better to be prepared.
Take for example the recent case of Patrick Schumacher, director of Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) in the UK. Schumacher made headlines around the world last year when, following Zaha Hadid’s unexpected death in March, he outlined a new manifesto during a keynote address at the World Architecture Festival in Berlin in November.
In his speech, which was streamed live and widely reported on industry and general news websites globally, Schumaker called for public housing and public spaces in London to be handed over to private developers as a way of dealing with the city's housing crisis. His manifesto prompted uproar and Schumacher later apologised for the “embarrassment” his comments caused to colleagues and friends, saying that he hadn’t anticipated how poorly they would be received.
So, lesson one: Test any new ideas on colleagues and friends before you unveil them in front of a worldwide audience.
After the initial furore, family and friends of the late Zaha Hadid distanced themselves from Schumacher’s controversial views, and the ZHA office issued an Open Letter – which was also widely reported in the architectural press – that denounced Schumacher’s position.
The Open Letter stated:
"Patrik Schumacher's 'urban policy manifesto' does not reflect Zaha Hadid Architects' past—and will not be our future.
Zaha Hadid did not write manifestos. She built them..."
At that point, the incident and its fallout had become a public relations nightmare for the practice: the resulting negative discussion and intense scrutiny detracted from ZHA’s core business of designing buildings, and arguably tarnished its largely positive reputation.
Lesson two: have a crisis management strategy in place to deal with any potential problems as they arise. Discuss the potential issues the practice might face – a fatality on a building site; a major fault in a completed project – and map out crisis scenarios. Appoint a designated spokesperson, and agree on a method of formulating your internal response, before responding to external requests for comment or further information.
Unfortunately for ZHA, this story isn’t over yet. Rather than extinguishing the fire, or letting it burn out quietly, in January 2017 a team member at ZHA leaked an email to the The Architects' Journal. In that email, which was written in late November, Schumacher claimed that the Open Letter had been issued by the firm’s of PR, Roger Howie, without the authorisation of Schumaker or his co-directors.
Before we examine the contents of that email, let’s just pause for a moment, to consider the fact that someone at the practice LEAKED a private email from a director to a prestigious industry publication, knowing that it would be deemed newsworthy and reproduced. If your practice culture is such that employees are leaking emails from directors to the press, you possibly have more pressing issues to deal with than internal communications. But that’s a story for another time.
So, here’s an excerpt from the leaked Schumaker email:
“But feeling the real pressure of the hyper-volleys flying all over and around him in the eerie media vortex where he is residing since WAF, [Howie] failed to wait for their response and released his piece into this spinning hungry media vortex. I found out about this only when some stunning new twitter headlines popped onto my iphone (tonight here in HongKong) about an “open feud” at the heart of ZHA and about my imminent unemployment (about to “stress test my libertarian ideology”. Hahahaha!!! Hey, there is at least still some humour out there among all the real and faked outrage). So now we have yet another myth to dispel. Sorry Roger, you have been doing a fantastic and fantastically difficult job in that phantasmagoric controversy that i regretfully enflamed with embarrassing innocence and perhaps with a dose of rather selfish recklessness (sorry to you all!) but I had to expose your slippage to dispel the confusion about who is (and who might want to be??) in charge of ZHA. (The media were also already speculating who might have authored this statement.)"
We can conclude from all this that a situation that started badly, and got progressively worse, was further inflamed by ongoing analysis of friction among the directors, and a fracture within the senior leadership team.
Here's lesson three: get all staff to agree to the internal comms messaging, or to review and update it as needed, so that any outgoing messaging or media statements are consistent with the stated and agreed practice values.
To recap: Internal communications is one of the most important parts of a comprehensive comms strategy, but it’s often overlooked. Good internal communications start when a practice establishes its communications agenda, which then needs to be discussed and approved by key people internally. Once everyone's on board, the strategy needs to steer and guide any external communications, whether to the media, external stakeholders or other public outlets.
Unfortunately, it may become apparent that your internal communications plan is severely lacking when you need it most: in the face of a crisis. That’s a risky position to be in, because its absence – or a breakdown of internal communications under stress – can prove embarrassing or even cause permanent damage to your brand image. A single incident that generates negative press – in either traditional publications or on social media - can dismantle years of hard work when it comes to brand awareness.
At this point, it’s worth asking some questions about the internal communications plan (or lack thereof) in your own practice:
- What internal approval processes have you established to oversee the development and delivery of any external communications?
- Who is responsible for issuing media releases or statements to the press?
- Has that person (or persons) had media training or crisis management training, or could they quickly consult a communications expert if they had to deal with a challenging event?
Like the case of the proverbial fire extinguisher that was never purchased, or was available but was inexplicably empty, you don't want to discover that your internal communications strategy is missing or faulty when you go to use it.
If it's not on your list of things to tackle next week, schedule an internal communications planning session with the relevant people in your practice and start the process. Like all forms of communication, internal comms is vitally important. Don’t let your practice get caught in the media spotlight without a fire extinguisher in working order.
This is Part 2 of the Sounds Like Design 'Comms Toolkit' series, which aims to help architects become better communicators. Sign up to receive weekly updates and more useful tips, or contact us directly to ask about our consulting services.