What difference does it make?

Successful organizations understand that significant competitive advantage can be gained through strategic communication practices and that managing the communications process is critical to their success.

Please note:

Some of these case studies are derived from Ms. Henry’s work as a consultant; others from her work as an in-house practitioner.

These case studies may reflect some of the issues your organization is encountering in approaching similar communication challenges. They highlight how thinking strategically and creatively about communication can help your organization achieve its goals.

Building a solid infrastructure to support communication

Employee communications will happen whether formally supported by the organization or left to the employees themselves. But for a strong organization – just as for a strong building – a solid infrastructure will guard against breakdowns. More …

One large decentralized organization with no formal internal communications program left the responsibility for communicating with employees to local business unit leadership – the quality dependent upon the communication skills of the local leaders and their staff. Messages addressed local concerns with little consistency in communicating business strategy across the enterprise.

Developing a communications plan that could be employed across the business units was the first step in clarifying strategy and brand at the enterprise level.

Understanding that effective communication requires a solid infrastructure where employees can get information from their preferred source meant building a communications infrastructure that included

  • a print magazine focusing on shared services used by all business units;
  • a video newscast highlighting success stories from across the organization;
  • an intranet designed to reinforce corporate strategy messages with new content posted daily;
  • an online biweekly e-newsletter highlighting important new intranet content;
  • an editorial feature where business unit leaders could communicate across units and employees could gain understanding of the greater organizational story; and
  • quarterly town hall meetings that included local business unit leadership in the corporate “road show.”

In changing the paradigm from business unit-driven communication to corporate-driven communication, we put an infrastructure in place that supported numerous corporate-driven initiatives that followed. Employees could find needed information and achieve greater understanding of the corporate story through a variety of communications sources.

Engaging employees with corporate strategy

While pushing out repetitive simplistic messages on corporate strategy to employees has its place, effective organizations also focus on boosting engagement with strategy through relevant dialogue among leaders, managers and their teams. More …

Research at a large manufacturing company trying to drive change quickly through the organization showed that while employees were generally aware of the new corporate strategy, it was not translating into their behavior. Employees understood the basics but seemed unable to determine or commit to actions that supported a strategy designed to affect lagging performance.

Drive ownership of strategy through employee ‘support groups.’

To move beyond simple awareness, we created an approach to drive ownership of the strategy through the use of “support groups.” Groups were small enough (approximately 10 participants) to allow each participant to contribute. Participants were chosen from different functional areas and different levels of seniority, resulting in groups with a range of perspectives and experience. Early group meetings followed an agenda and discussion guide created by the communications team.

Initial discussions focused on having participants personalize the strategy – articulating what was interesting or relevant to their work. A second round of meetings focused on discussions of what participants might need to execute differently in order to support the strategy. Many participants reported that this helped make the strategy “more real” within the context of day-to-day activities. In a third series of discussions, managers focused on ways to boost strategy engagement with rank-and-file employees.

Teams continued to generate new ways to support the strategy in ongoing teleconferences. The company was able to speed up the tempo for strategy execution with an invigorated, committed team of individuals with a line of sight from their work to the organization’s success.

Moving to a shared services model – a lesson in change management

John P. Kotter’s eight-step process for leading change was the foundation for a successful transformation to a shared services model that achieved its goal of improved and fully integrated services at a lower cost. More …

John P. Kotter, world-renowned expert in leadership and transformation, provided the framework that led to this Fortune 500 company’s successful implementation of a shared services model.

We established a sense of urgency by making a strong business case using a data-driven approach: Moving to a shared services model would save the company millions annually. We created a guiding coalition that included a steering committee of the heads of each department that would transition into the shared services organization and a transition team that included liaisons to each department as well as representatives from areas including human resources, information technology and communications.

Kotter’s change management model
John Kotter’s eight-step process includes

  1. establishing a sense of urgency,
  2. creating the guiding coalition,
  3. developing a change vision and strategy,
  4. communicating the change vision,
  5. empowering broad-based action,
  6. generating short-term wins,
  7. consolidating gains and producing more change, and
  8. anchoring new approaches into the culture.

We created the vision for the future state and roadmap to get there in great detail prior to our initial launch of the initiative. This gave us the ability at the outset to answer more questions more easily and to move quickly once the transformation began. Communicating this vision in a concise, compelling manner was instrumental to diminishing uncertainty and promoting early acceptance of the program.

Research shows that communication drives employee discretionary effort, which, in turn, drives change. We began with multiple town hall meetings using senior leaders in affected departments as spokespersons for the change effort. We developed a transition website as the go-to source for all information related to the new shared services organization and updated it daily. It included feedback mechanisms to track employee questions and concerns. We also published Manager’s Toolkits and offered training to help middle management understand and communicate the transition’s progress.

Early communications included a timeline for reductions in the workforce and outlined a generous benefits package. Timely and honest communication supported employee engagement throughout the process; however, we were careful not to focus more on those who would ultimately lose their jobs than on those whom we would rely on to make the transformation a success.

Transition teams included employees at every level, and although the end goal was generally prescribed, how to achieve that goal was left to the team’s discretion. Giving a voice to those who would eventually do the work increased engagement and ownership of the new model. Senior leadership supported this with messages underscoring that “we’re all in this together.”

We tracked our progress and, more important, our “wins” and reported these successes widely, quickly developing a sense that the transformation was progressing and that the new model would succeed. This information was shared with the enterprise as well as within the shared services organization. Frequent steering committee and transition team meetings allowed us to act quickly on lessons learned. Because the work progressed quickly involving employees at all levels with creating a new model for “how we do things,” momentum built and new approaches became embedded in the culture.

When brand is an enigma, value goes unnoticed

In today’s marketplace, a strong brand is often the difference between just surviving and thriving. Employees can be powerful brand ambassadors, but only if they can translate the brand promise into reality. More …

At one company, once research with clients, business partners, employees and others had determined a new brand platform and its dimensions, the next phase was to introduce it to employees, educate them about what it meant, engage them in “brand behaviors” and make brand messaging pervasive throughout the organization.

With large or decentralized organizational structures, definitions of brand can reside within the lines of business, diluting the potential power of an organization-wide unique value proposition.

Over a period of several months, the brand team took the following steps:

  • The head of marketing introduced the new brand at employee town hall meetings using a graphics-style video to describe the new brand platform.
  • A series of video interviews with the organization’s leadership team highlighted how senior leaders use the brand in their daily work.
  • Employees known for their ability to energize others were enlisted to support the brand as official “Brand Champions.”
  • A robust internal website was developed with supporting brand materials.
  • A social networking site – “Brandville” (similar to “Farmville” on Facebook) – rewarded employees for displaying brand behaviors.
  • Communications professionals audited all employee messages to ensure that language that reflected the brand was incorporated.

At the end of this educational period, Brand Day – a day devoted to officially launching the brand – was proclaimed. This celebration included distribution of a brand book and supporting intranet articles as well as an office-decorating campaign that included posters, table-tent materials in conference rooms, etc.

Employees now understood the brand and could emulate it in their daily work lives. This clearer perception of the value the company provided to its customers as well as how the company was different from competitors energized the workforce and provided greater consistency and direction to the corporate strategy.

Developing employee awareness of regulatory compliance

In a highly regulated industry, it’s important that the employees understand the criticality of adhering to all regulatory guidance. It can cost a company its reputation as well as millions of dollars in fines and remediation costs. But, the biggest challenge in communicating with employees about compliance is making it interesting; it’s a subject that’s inherently dull. More …

Without a strong communication effort to help employees understand the principles, embed the procedures into their work and commit to supporting full compliance, one organization came to understand that it was significantly at risk. Developing “a compliance mindset” would be essential, using compliance messages in all discussions of business strategy and operations, and underscoring that compliance is something the company values.

While it’s true that compliance is an inherently dull topic, it doesn’t have to be presented that way.

In communicating the message, we worked to achieve four objectives: To make it interesting, interactive, fun (and funny) and pervasive.

  • We included the topic in every leadership message, presentation and discussion, even if only briefly.
  • We developed posters and paycheck buck slips advertising our Integrity Line, an 800-number where an employee could report infractions, ask questions or alert management to problems.
  • We developed an online Compliance Jeopardy game (with categories from the mandatory training topics) and awarded an iPad to the winning contestant.
  • We created a “Compliance Central” brand to be used on our intranet and newsletters, and included regular features, e.g., Friday Fast Facts, a topical editorial series titled “What Were They Thinking?” and a series of videos titled “Adventures in Career-Limiting Moves.”
  • For all-employee town hall meetings, we included compliance scenarios, explained by cartoon characters, to generate discussion of ethics, privacy and other compliance topics.
  • We linked our own Compliance Awareness Week with the celebration supported by The Society for Corporate Compliance and Ethics. It was informational, with a full-blown communications campaign supporting it, but it was also be what celebrations are supposed to be: fun.

Does any organization ever achieve fully compliant behavior? Probably not, but no company can afford not to pursue it. Not only did this communications campaign support the compliance program, it also increased employee engagement and improved employee morale. From a financial perspective, it was the smart thing to do; from an ethical perspective, it was the right thing to do.

Prose versus pictures: Encouraging a technical workforce to communicate

Professional communicators are largely “word” people – their ability to communicate is based on their ability to write prose. However, those who have entered the workforce based on technical expertise – manufacturers, engineers, technicians and so forth – tend to be “picture” people, interpreting their world in diagrams, schematics and flow charts. How can these diverse approaches work together to improve organizational communication? More …

A model for communicationsThere is a common model used by many communicators that diagrams the upward trajectory of employee communications passing from awareness to understanding to acceptance and, finally, to commitment as the employee engagement process progresses through five stages: inform, clarify, engage, involve and achieve. A thoughtful communications plan will consider ways to work an employee audience through all five stages. Working this process is second nature to most communications professionals who proceed in an almost-intuitive manner.

But how do you explain this process to those who have communication responsibility in their job description, but who lack intuitive or well-practiced communication skills? One large manufacturer developed a graphic representation of this model tailored to the organization. Parallel to the five-stage diagram, a vertical column detailed various types of communications from mass media (newsletters, videos, intranet content) aligned with the “inform” and “clarify” stages in the process, to interactive communication with leaders (one-on-one conversations, teleconferences, town hall meetings) aligned with the “engage” and “involve” stages.

The document was widely distributed, with poster-sized versions displayed on office walls. To ensure that managers understood their role in the process, the communications team developed a one-day training program based on the model. In this program, we emphasized the difference between a “managed” communication process in which management is an active participant versus an “unmanaged” process in which employees are left to interpret strategic intent for themselves. By discussing effective communication skills in terms a technical audience would embrace – not with words, but with a diagram – we succeeded where previous efforts had failed. Managers could see that sending a memo might inform employees, but only two-way engagement would move a team to acceptance and commitment. The diagram clearly illustrated how manager participation was vital to the communications process.

At another manufacturing organization, we experienced similar successful results through the use of message maps. A message map is a tool commonly used in media training. A central or key message (in a box in the center of the page) is surrounded by positive supporting statements (in satellite boxes), and proof points accompany these supporting statements.

The message map was first introduced to senior leaders during media training sessions, but soon, developing the message map for critical issues became an important part of strategy discussions. What was the key or main message? What four or five positive statements could be made supporting the main message? What evidence or positive proof points would help build the case for understanding and acceptance? In several instances, difficulty developing a message map led to a change in direction – if positive supporting statements and proof points were elusive, perhaps a better approach was needed.

Communicators see words as fundamental tools for success, but, in a technical organization, the picture may truly be worth a thousand words.

Intranet strategy and development

Intranets are foundational to many organization’s communications and information architecture, but rapid intranet growth often overwhelms users. By building discipline into intranet development and management, this company was able to boost the return on its intranet investments. More …

At one global organization of more than 40,000 employees, the company intranet had quickly become the receptacle for an astonishing amount of content presented in a variety of styles and formats. Information overload had become a serious concern, and productivity dropped as employees waded through unnecessary or irrelevant material. It was clear that only a more disciplined approach could save what was rapidly becoming an ineffective tool.

Growth in content presented an opportunity for our communications team to convene a working group of site owners to re-evaluate intranet fundamentals, build support for an intranet strategy and create common development tools and procedures. While site owners might have resisted corporate “edicts,” they welcomed the invitation to participate in discussions of appropriate governance.

A clearer intranet structure would allow users to move through information more easily.

The first phase of discussion was designed not to dictate content, but to structure the way it was presented. A common look-and-feel and consistent navigation would make the site easier to use and less costly to produce.

Working with legal guidance, we developed first-draft content guidelines to be reviewed, revised and adopted by the group. These guidelines included a process for carefully weighing new content as well as for purging content past its prime. We also developed a methodology for proposing, ranking and determining system improvements based, in part, on regular review of intranet performance metrics. This approach to intranet governance and management not only increased the current effectiveness of this communications channel, but also ensured its ongoing vitality as well as its value.

Helping employees to understand a company’s financial reporting

Quarterly reporting of financial results is an opportunity to help employees engage with corporate strategy and better understand how they personally contribute to company goals. Yet, at many organizations, employees lack a basic understanding of how the company generates revenue, what business expenses are incurred in running the company or what conditions are necessary for the company to make a profit. More …

It isn’t useful to report financial results if employees don’t understand basic business terminology, so, at one company, we began with baseline education. Three animated videos, posted to the company intranet, discussed the income statement, the balance sheet and the statement of cash flows. We defined key industry metrics as well as basic Wall Street terminology and concepts. Further, we created a graphic representation of one dollar in revenue, breaking it down by the percentage (cents) spent on sales, salaries, operations, etc., and detailing the amount left as profit.

Understanding of company finances increases with ongoing education.

With each quarterly earnings announcement to analysts and investors, we created a special announcement to employees. This e-mail message from the CEO was accompanied by a link to the press release but was tailored to internal audiences with references to business units, initiatives and operations data not necessarily understood outside the company. If results were other than routine – good or bad – this message might be a videotaped address, posted to the company intranet.

Managers played an important role. Talking points and question-and-answer documents that detailed results by business units and departments helped employees understand their team’s contributions as well as where performance could be improved. Many managers scheduled conference calls in conjunction with the earnings announcement, using the opportunity to discuss results specific to their groups.

We also created an employee annual report, similar to the annual report to shareholders but tailored to the employee audience. This was done as a “special edition” of the employee print magazine one year and as an online newsmagazine with video segments the next. All messaging, regardless of format, underscored the company’s mission and brand, and employee survey results demonstrated over time that employees had gained understanding of the business plan and their contribution to its success.

Communicating a leadership transition

Whether it’s a change at the top of the organization or the top of a department, communicating a change in leadership requires thoughtful consideration, careful planning and rapid execution. More …

Reasons for a transition in leadership can vary greatly: retirement, resignation, a move to a new company or a move to the different role within the same company, to name a few. No matter the reason, it’s critical that the communication strategy embraces the change and moves quickly to ease the transition.

When the chairman and CEO of one large company decided to relinquish the day-to-day responsibilities of the chief executive officer, we immediately began to plan. This pre-announcement work was especially important: how well prepared the communications plan appeared would affect how well prepared the new leader appeared. Waiting to communicate would send mixed messages and prolong any anxiety about the change: The key was to move quickly and to promise (and deliver) more with time.

Waiting to communicate sends mixed messages and prolongs anxiety.

The former CEO welcomed the new CEO and delineated how his own role was changing – where the incumbent’s responsibilities ended and the new leader’s began. We then worked rapidly to establish a presence for the new leader with all key audiences, scheduling time to meet with investors and analysts, customers, the media, other senior leaders and employees. Where in-person meetings were not possible, we substituted teleconferences and video messages. We determined what key themes would be for the new leader and referenced those themes in every speech, video, conversation and written message. Themes varied slightly by audience, but were always a foundation for communication.

The new leader quickly established a presence. This underscored his leadership capabilities and supported his efforts in building a new future for the company under his direction.

Employee communications research – a great place to start

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where –” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
Lewis Carroll
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

More …

It was true for Alice, and it’s often true for those in employee communications: If you don’t care where you end up, go any way you want. But researching your audience and environment is by far the best path to choose if you wish to end up with an effective employee communications program. Research need not be extensive – or expensive – in order to be effective; and, it is well worth the effort. It provides a clear path to follow, as well as a baseline by which to measure future efforts.

Executive interviews are a good first step. At one global company, we began by interviewing top executives specifically about their approaches to communication and how well they felt their efforts were received. This would allow us to later compare and contrast the leaders’ views with employees’ perceptions.

Keeping it confidential
To tape or not to tape
We made audio recordings of focus groups for accuracy only, assuring participants that only the focus group leader would hear the playback. The tapes were useful for accurately quoting participants, and managers readily responded to recommendations based on a compilation of anonymous employee quotes.

Next, we conducted a series of focus groups in a variety of business units and countries. Questions were concerned with the work environment, employee understanding of business strategy, and formal and informal communication preferences. We asked specifically for feedback on existing communications vehicles – the company magazine, intranet, town hall meetings, etc. – and for recommendations for additional sources. Later, this information would allow us to allocate resources where they could have more significant impact.

Focus groups supported development of a better instrument for a widely distributed electronic employee communications survey, with questions firmly based in current realities and with enterprise-wide scope as well as business-unit focus. Use of an outside vendor/survey administrator lent legitimacy to claims of confidentiality and streamlined data collection and tabulation.

The research report we shared with the senior management team not only led to greater participation and engagement from them (because employees had specifically requested to hear and see more of them), but it also led to increased funding for the employee communications program. Further, as subsequent surveys showed, the employee communications program that was developed as a result of the research resonated with employees more fully because it was based on their recommendations.

Note: Employee communications research is not the equivalent of employee engagement research. The former speaks directly to the communications process; the latter to employee motivation and satisfaction, of which communications practices are only a small part.

© 2017 Betty Henry Communications