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Change Management in Changing Times: A Q&A with Employee Communications Pros

October 11, 2010

By Elizabeth C. Castro, vice president, O’Malley Hansen Communications

If you oversee employee communications for clients or within your organization, take a quick look at your archives – items like your employee newsletter of 10-15 years ago. Yes, they seem funny and even simplistic by today’s standards. But looking back at past work provides some insights into how employee communications has evolved over the years, where it’s going and what hasn’t really changed. Gone are the days when your employee communications consisted primarily of service anniversaries and benefits information, and employee communicators provided a purely functional role. Now, dedicated employee communications teams have become highly adept at working in partnership with their organization’s leaders to help employees march in the same direction to meet overall business objectives. Today, it’s all about smart strategy, engagement and of course, change management. And nothing can really replace some face-to-face time.

The Communications Blog connected with some of the industry’s brightest and most experienced communications pros here in the U.S. and U.K. to share their perspectives on employee communications and engagement. Here are their thoughts:

What is the biggest difference between internal communications/communicators and external communications/communicators?

Nate Riggs (NR), principal, Social Business Strategies LLC – I think the biggest difference is the potential to really create and solidify an emotional connection to a brand.  Tony Hsieh had a quote in Delivering Happiness that has stuck with me since I read it:  “Your culture is your brand…”.  I think that is absolutely spot on.  If you can focus on making it easy and rewarding for your employees to communicate across all levels of the organization, these same stories also radiate outside of your organization naturally.  Oftentimes, social media is the catalyst that takes them to the outside world.  For instance, we’re using an internally focused Facebook fan page to connect employees at Incept, but leaving it completely transparent and visible to the outside world.  A funny thing happens when you do that.  Customers and prospective customers, and even some competitors often and watch and participate in those internal conversations.

Kevin Johnson (KJ), employee communications, BT (UK)The biggest difference is the use of implicit compared to explicit messages. Internally, people seek to read between the lines far more, so the need to be aware of the audience and their frame of reference is very important. Externally you tend to be either selling a message, belief or idea which is far more explicit in tone.  The emotional intelligence that needs to go into employee communications is far more interesting as a challenge.

Steven J. Ramirez (SJR), CEO of Beyond the Arc, Inc. - Employees appreciate hearing about new initiatives or how the company is faring in the marketplace, but they are particularly interested in hearing about the vision for the company. They want to know that the company has a mission that resonates with their personal values.

Rachel Allen (RA), head of communications at London Overground Rail Operations Ltd.In recent times the pressure on employee communicators to prove their worth and demonstrate return on investment has been greater than ever, particularly in this age of budget cuts.  I think it is encouraging to see more communications positions at board level and think the biggest difference has been the shift in perceptions. In the past, employee communicators  were  often seen as optional – as a ‘nice to have’, whereas now I think there is clarity around the benefit communications professionals can add, particularly  when they have strategic input. Being able to help shape decisions from the start, rather than picking up the pieces later down the line and trying to create messaging to help embed change, is a change for the better. There’s still room for improvement but as a whole I think the industry is moving in the right direction.

How much has the role of an employee communicator changed over the last 10 years?

SJR – It’s changed dramatically. First, they are called on to apply their expertise to a much wider range of internal communications challenges. Second, the globalization of most large organizations has meant that cross-cultural communications is more important than ever.  Finally, information overload takes its toll and communicators not only need to craft the right message, they need to target it to the right audiences and select the appropriate communications channels

KJ – Since 2000 I have seen a move for employee communicators to be a real business partner: more strategic thinking, greater focus on engagement and two-way communications and improved professionalism.

RAEmployee communicators are asked to wear lots of different hats and perform various roles. Back in June the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) held its world conference in Canada and looked at this topic. It outlined seven crucial communication roles that the employee communicator needs to embrace in order to ‘continue to be relevant in their organization five years from now. Those roles are:  the talent, the talent scout, the big picture painter, the community organizer, the multimedia story teller, the social media coach and the creative strategist. You can see from this list that employee communicators need to be all things to all people. (Read more on this subject on Rachel’s blog – http://www.rachallen.com/?p=561)

NRFor most companies, I don’t think it’s really changed at all.  The majority of companies out there today still want to keep employees very limited in how they communicate with each other.  This is the typical classical or top-down management philosophy. The buzz around the question is created by very progressive companies that do embrace open employee to employee communication. Companies like Zappos or Hubspot or maybe even BestBuy are setting the new tones here.

In today’s financial climate, change management is a big topic in the employee engagement area. What are employee communicators most concerned about or focusing on?

SJREmployees can be unsettled and fearful. Internal communicators want to have a positive impact on morale, but they don’t want to sugar coat an uncertain situation. Striking this balance isn’t very easy.

RA – The key focus area for employee communicators now is the ability to link change to engagement and to steer organizations through the change curve to get to where they need to be. Communications professionals are aware of the impact of change and the importance of listening, thinking strategically and providing transparent two-way communications to help guide companies through it. We often discover the best ways of doing things is by being in the deep end, so the focus is to keep sharp and alert to trends and ask peers for their advice. I believe that being a member of groups such as the IABC, Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC) or Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) is beneficial for employee communicators as you can draw strength from each other and discover what has worked well and equally what hasn’t been successful. I think we’re concerned about getting it right and learning when things don’t go to plan, in order to improve when the next change comes along.

NR – I think most communicators are concerned with getting top level buy-in for any type of change initiatives in communication.  In most cases, significant change is going to require time, resources and some capital investment.  Getting buy in that requires C-level leaders to sign checks is often a big source of anxiety for a majority of the communicators I work with.

KJ - Change communications is one area I see still lagging in maturity compared to some of the other areas of communication. Too often we try and beat people into changing their behavior or way of working simply by the power of our logical argument. The emotional response to change is the part of communication that takes it from science to art. You need to have great processes in place, the science so to speak, to deal with the steps for communicating a merger or downsizing, for example. But the art comes in how you then engage with people and bring out their resistance so that you can align both the logical and emotional messages (There’s some great stuff by Chip and Dan Heath on communicating in change, and some interesting thoughts for communicators in Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis).

When trying to communicate a new strategic direction to employees, what are some of the new tools being used beyond employee newsletters?

RA - There are plenty of tools in the employee communicator’s toolbox to choose from. Employee newsletters still have their place – I think it is important to assess an organization’s culture and set-up before dismissing the more traditional tactics in favor of whizzy gadgets and trends, which may clash with the way things are done and how employees expect to receive/give information. I think the phrase ‘new tools’ immediately makes people think of social media. But these tools aren’t really new, they have been around for a while now and employee communicators have a rich mix to choose from blogs, wikis, Twitter-style tools (e.g., Yammer), podcasts and forums. They certainly have their place in the toolbox as they can aid collaboration and discussion which in turn can help with sense-checking and providing clarity. I recommend a pick and mix approach to tools; choosing what is right for your target audience and culture in order to get your messages across and understood.

KJ – Old is the new ‘new’ or more to the point, face-to-face is the future of communicating strategy. Blogs, podcasts, tweets will never get the same interaction that real face-to-face engagement brings, nor will it allow you to allow people to raise issues, build trust and belief, especially if you have difficult messages. And from a British perspective, all of the nuances and subtleties that go with the way that many people communicate here get lost when it is done in a virtual way. For strategic direction there is no substitute to getting the leadership out and visible, particularly in helping more junior management understand what is being communicated so they can be part of the change.

SJR – One of the most effective ways to convey a new strategy is via town hall meetings; that kind of face-to-face interaction can’t be beat. Internal video segments can also be very effective. We’ve seen some great use of video produced in a news magazine style. Social media has not yet come of age in the large enterprise, but we expect to see more use of internal blogs, wikis, and more.

NR – There’s a variety of tools that can be used, but internal social networks and communities are growing in popularity.  These can range from free tools like Facebook pages, LinkedIn groups or even internal micro blogs like Yammer, to more high-end applications like Jive Software, SocialCast or Ramius. At the end of the day, it depends heavily on the size of your budget, the size of your company and ultimately the types and severity of communication challenges the business is facing.

How do you reach desk bound employees versus employees in the field or in manufacturing settings?

NR - The common denominator here is mobile devices.  There’s a reason why mobile integration and application development trends are rising at such an alarming rate.  Adoption of mobile communication strategies will become more dominant than email became in the late 90′s.

SJR – If you need to reach employees in the field, or on the shop floor, then talking points, team huddles, and similar personal communications are very effective. In this era of hi-tech global communications, sometimes we forget how effective it can be to just speak with someone!

KJ – The boundaries are merging here with mobile workers getting technology that makes content accessible from any location.  The larger issue is recognizing the desire to access information as we move to less ‘push’ and more ‘pull’ information. That means the quality, succinctness and tone of messages needs to be really compelling and differentiated in a way that audiences from different backgrounds find accessible.

What are the most successful ways you’ve communicated difficult news to employees?

KJDifficult news is actually quite simple to get right but for some reason we all too often get it wrong through a lack of preparation, planning and forethought. First, what is the plan? Think about what you need to say, prepare for what it means to the individual, recognize that they may not accept it and you may need to repeat and confirm what it means. But most importantly do it with respect and do it simply. Second, how should you do it? Tell them personally, face-to-face, but if that’s not possible (and it shouldn’t be just because it is inconvenient), do it by phone. Never send a text, email or voice message – and never in a group meeting or conference call, unless everyone is affected.

RA – I think the most important measure of success is feedback. If you receive lots of questions and comments throughout a period of communicating difficult news, it shows that employees trust the process. Or it at least demonstrates they know who to direct their concerns to if they cannot find the answers they are looking for at a local level. Also, I’ve successfully used rumor busting campaigns – literally lifting the lid on shared concerns whispered in corridors and exposing them in order to be able to address them in an open and transparent way. I have found that demystifying rumors and unpicking them to reveal the elements of truth, and correcting false information has worked well. I’ve also found that empowering line managers is a crucial part of communicating difficult news. Equipping them with the tools to tackle the difficult topics at a local level and raising concerns at a higher level is vital. The ideal scenario is empowered line managers meeting face-to-face with their teams to discuss difficult situations and news.

NR – I love, love, LOVE Skype or any type of video conferencing.  Depending on what studies you’ve read, it’s somewhere in the area of 65%-75% of all communication between humans is non verbal.  That said, conference calls are extremely ineffective in my mind.  The ability to see who you’re talking with and read facial gestures, body posture and other non verbal expressions is critical.   I learned a concept from Kerry Patterson’s book “Crucial Conversations: Make it Safe.”  It describes how you can approach both written and spoken conversations in order to make the employee feel like they can be absolutely honest with you. Outside of this, for me, video conferencing is a corner stone in interpersonal communication for business.

SJR – Employees appreciate straight talk. The language should be clear and concise, delivered in a respectful and empathetic tone.  

When developing a change management/employee communications program what are the top strategies or tactics? How do you approach it?

NR – Number one: Audience research on the different types of employees.  We use surveys, focus groups and individual interviews to really get the feel of the different types of audiences were dealing with. Number two are cultural assessments. We look at the internal social graph of a company to identify the communication leaders who might live outside of the management hierarchy in order to understand how they influence their pack.  To do this, we start with the C-level and ask more relationship driven questions to see if any rank and file employees are popping up on multiple radars.  Once we’ve identified the folks who connect levels in an organization, we work outwards to map out the communication clusters who might be having frequent “conversations at water coolers”, whether those are happing inside or outside of the office, or in online communities.

KJ – It’s all in the planning:

1. Build a stakeholder map; details of what the impact is, what changes, who influences them and when.

2. Build a message set.

3. Ensure you have active sponsorship. Not vanity or badge-wearing sponsorship but commitment for time, resource and the right influence.

4. A change readiness assessment – What change has there been before, with what success? What involvement has there been (the emotional stuff)?

5. Make it two-way – People might not have choice in what is happening but the more you can involve them in how to get there, to share their views, to provide comment and feedback, the quicker you get to the other end of the change and start seeing the benefits.

The Communications Bog wants to thank these experts who contributed their insights to this article. Here’s a bit about each contributor and how to find/follow them online/on Twitter for continued best practices:

Kevin Johnson works in employee communications for BT plc (http://www.bt.com).  Operating in more than 170 countries, BT is one of the world’s leading providers of communications solutions and services. Its principal activities include networked IT services, local, national and international telecommunications services, and higher value broadband and internet products and services.  Kevin has focused on communication during change, with experience in financial services and transport before joining BT. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinSJohnson.

Steven J. Ramirez is the CEO of Beyond the Arc, Inc. (http://www.beyondthearc.com), a management consulting and strategic communications firm that helps clients sharpen their focus on their customers. Steve’s expertise is in effective management and communication strategies for mergers, acquisitions, and other corporate strategy initiatives. You can join the conversation on Twitter at @beyondthearc.

Rachel Allen is Head of Communications at London Overground Rail Operations Ltd. She started her career as a journalist, and then wrote internal publications for L’Oréal, GSK and BSkyB through an agency, before moving in-house. She has been part of the corporate communication team at Visa, Visteon and Tube Lines and in 2009 was named one of PR Week’s Top 29 under 29. Her Twitter ID is @rachallen and blog is www.rachallen.com

Nate Riggs is the principal and chief strategist at his firm, Social Business Strategies LLC. He works with mid-sized & large organizations to help them adopt and use social media communication tools, and build social media offerings designed to serve their clients. He is a proud dad and lucky husband who enjoys music, photography and distance racing. Nate also blogs about business strategy, communications, parenting and life in Columbus, Ohio at www.nateriggs.com. You can follow him on Twitter @nateriggs.

Elizabeth Castro is a vice president at O’Malley Hansen Communications (OHC) in Chicago (www.omalleyhansen.com) and the editor of www.TheCommunicationsBlog.com. OHC has developed award winning public relations and social media campaigns for national brands. You can follow her on Twitter at @Eliz_Castro and @thecommsblog.


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3 Comments
  1. So glad you re-posted this article on your blog. Thanks again for participating!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Handling change management today: what the experts say « Blog @beyondthearc.com
  2. How to Communicate Effectively With Employees | CallCenterBestPractices.com

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