People often assume that public relations is all about speaking with the media, but that kind of external communications is just one aspect of PR. To be honest, it all starts internally, by engaging first with your employees.

If you want to do a great job communicating with your customers, partners, vendors and other stakeholders, you have to begin by keeping your own people informed and up to speed. Your people are your team, your front line of defense, your ambassadors. They're the ones who have to know how to respond when clients ask about hours of operation, product availability, company policies, complaint resolution and more. 

When I took the exam to earn accreditation in public relations by the Public Relations Society of America, this basic concept of informing from within came up more than once. I've been reminded of it recently watching how well -- or not so well -- organizations in the Carolinas communicated with their consumers and stakeholders following two hurricanes in four weeks. In some cases, I knew what was closed and what was open for business and in other cases other cases I was left guessing, and it was clear that employees were too.

Here are four times you should be prepared to communicate with your internal team. 

1. You are issuing a press release. 

Ahead of sending your news -- of a new product, new hire, new campaign, a rebranding effort, an acquisition and the like -- to journalists, send an email to employees. For more complex matters, consider sending talking points to client-facing team members so that everyone is responding with the same message.

2. Your company or one of its leaders is in the news.

If you landed a big profile in The Wall Street Journal or local business journal, let employees know. You want them to feel great about where they work -- and spread the word, too. Circulate the news coverage in an internal email. Let employees know if it's OK for them to share on their social media channels. Post to the intranet. Consider a follow-up story in the company newsletter.

By the way, you also want to do this even if the story is a negative one for the company; more on that later. 

3. Your company is embarking on a major initiative.

If you are going to spend a year rebranding your company, launching a new product line overhauling the annual review process or benefits, you want to get as much buy-in from within as possible. Think of a yearlong communications campaign for your people. Town hall meetings with leaders. Lunch and learn sessions. Newsletter and intranet stories.

4. Your company is affected by external events or a crisis.

These could be things out of your control, like bad weather or stock market slide. They may or may not be in your control -- like a negative news story. They could be things have to do with your business -- a product recall, a lawsuit, workplace violence, wrongdoing by leaders.

In any case, it's something that demands your immediate attention. It can even be the unexpected backlash that Crock-Pot faced earlier this year when NBC portrayed the iconic product as the culprit in the house fire that killed the dad the hit TV show "This Is Us."

Think robo calls, phone trees, email, talking points, frequently asked questions and responses from leaders.

Sometimes companies prefer to negative news under wraps, as if their people can't Google. In times of crisis or breaking news, in particular, you need to keep your employees informed and armed with true statements they can make to respond to questions from customers and others. Don't let employees draw their own conclusions. Don't leave them at a loss for words when confronted by customers and others. 

Just like you wouldn't stand by and let others tell the world their version of your story, you shouldn't leave your employees to fill in the blanks either. Communicate with your employees regularly -- and first.

Published on: Oct 17, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.