Public Relations Tactics

Sound off: The state of employee communications

April 30, 2013

Sean Williams is chair-elect of the Employee Communication Section, owner of  Communication AMMO in Moreland Hills, Ohio, and a member of the Institute for PR Measurement Commission. He is an adjunct PR professor at Kent State University.

What are some challenges in the corporate communications sector?

No. 1 is getting employees’ attention. People are overwhelmed with information. This is complicated by a lack of concrete communication objectives that are aligned with the organizational business objectives.  The emphasis is on getting the word out, and people are drowning in stuff that doesn’t help them perform better. 

The idea that all audiences have to be aware of everything so they’re aware of nothing — they’re just opting out of anything coming from higher up than their direct supervisors. 

We’re over-relying on electronic communication because of its ease of delivery, which means the communication loop is not being closed.

What trends do you see with leadership styles, tools or programs to engage people?

Engagement has to be more than an end in itself; it needs to be something that occurs as a consequence of a strong employee value proposition. 

We know that treating employees well tends to make them engaged, and engaged employees tend to be more productive. It’s treating people like people, listening and being fair.

That’s not a specific management style; it’s being human. But focusing on managerial behavior — communication context, listening, helping people understand the organization and its goals, how they play their part — can be the best thing a communicator can do.

What was top of mind at the Connect13 Conference on engaging the social workforce?

Amazement at getting approval to use social tools — there is a big change coming in how employee communicators do their work.  There’s less telling and more facilitating, and social tools are a big part of that. Convincing people who don’t have interest in social media of its worth is a steep hill, as is getting the lawyers to accept a modicum of risk in favor of a more open and accommodating communication style.  As the workforce becomes younger and more expecting of the availability of social tools, organizations have to figure out how to allow them.

Nancy Syzdek, APR, manages corporate communications for JT3 LLC. She also teaches ethics, advanced PR writing and media relations for UNLV’s PR Certificate Program and serves on PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards and Employee Communications Section Executive Committee.

What are some challenges in the corporate communications sector?

Even though we’re starting to see signs of economic recovery, the bounce-back has been slow for most corporate communications departments. The constant push to do more with less is now a standard operating procedure. As a result, we must show value in everything we’re doing. In order to survive and thrive, we must incorporate measurement into our campaigns and demonstrate the strength in our strategic counsel.

What trends do you see with leadership styles, tools or programs to engage people?

Thanks to the invasion of social media into internal conversations, we’re seeing employees engage in direct dialogue to achieve organizational goals. The old-school management silos will be the death knell of corporate America. Employees want a more egalitarian structure that rewards results and reject the quagmire of process for process’ sake.

Today’s internal communicators must facilitate this dialogue, draw out ideas and help leadership infuse this energy throughout the organization’s business model.

What is the best way to align, connect and inspire today’s employees? 

Sometimes the best thing we can do is stop and listen. We can learn so much from the words and actions of our employees. Engaging in meaningful dialogue can help companies understand the issues and identify innovations. 

When we empower industrious employees, we create inspiring organizational cultures where success breeds success and employees are engaged.

Jason Anthoine, APR, is an employee communications counselor at GE Energy Management with more than 24 years of experience in internal communications, employee engagement and change management.

What are some challenges in the corporate communications sector?

The two biggest challenges in communicating with employees are distractions and time. Employees are overloaded with content coming from every source and channel imaginable. But if we look at what most of those “communications” are, they aren’t communications. They are directives. That isn’t communication. That’s just transmission of content without regard for its reception, the receiver or its use once it’s received. That creates distractions. All of the distractions leave little time to communicate. If you can work on eliminating the distractions, then you gain time back to truly communicate.

What trends do you see with leadership styles, tools or programs to engage people?

There great ways to use new technologies, especially social and mobile, to reach employees. But what happens, as with most all of our tools and channels, is we use them to deliver the “what” when the content should be focused around the “why.” Unless it’s focused around why and connecting that with what’s relevant and important to employees, then it won’t work.

The philosophy we use at GE Energy Management is the “So What?” test. If we can’t figure out the answer from the employee’s perspective, then we are better off not communicating it. It’ll lead to more distractions and wasting of valuable time.

What is the best way to align, connect and inspire today’s employees?

Steve Martin once quipped, “Want to know how to be a millionaire? First, get a million dollars.” And that thinking applies. You must first earn their engagement. You can’t demand it, expect it or adjust compensation to magically make it happen. You have to earn it. Move employees along a continuum from awareness through understanding to acceptance and finally to commitment. Communications can help you get through the first three of those phases.

Allison Bunin is AVP of internal communications for North Shore-LIJ Health System. She is responsible for delivering an exceptional employee experience through strategic integrated communications.

What trends do you see with leadership styles, tools or programs to engage people?

Email has become somewhat of a dinosaur, with the enhanced role that social media now plays. By the time we draft, edit and get email communication approved, a one-liner on Twitter has already sparked a healthy dialogue. A trend worth watching is personalized communications available to employees in ways they prefer — not behind a firewall. Employees want to connect using smartphones and accessing the intranet anytime, anywhere.

Brevity is power. With more companies leveraging the social space to engage and influence employees, we’ll see more of this, impacting governance policies, privacy practices and changing the employee intranet from an information repository to a two-way dialogue platform.

What is the best way to align, connect and inspire today’s employees?

We have a unique opportunity to connect the employee to the organization’s mission, vision, values and purpose from the beginning. It’s an advantage that many companies don’t consider as part of their internal communications strategy. Once the employee onboards, their thirst for knowledge and connectivity skyrockets — give them an engaging platform with a social space for dialogue to get them revved up. It’s a huge payoff when your newcomers are serving as ambassadors to the rest of the workforce.  This requires a thoughtful, meaningful strategy that must be a constant within the organization. 

What was top of mind at the Connect13 Conference on engaging the social workforce?

Companies are struggling to figure it all out when it comes to employee engagement, change management, and leveraging digital tools at the right time and place. The event yielded a lot of creative tips and innovative solutions for communicators who are looking to maximize their impact. 

Managing Editor Amy Jacques interviewed these Employee Communications Section Members.

Visit here for more coverage of the PRSA Connect13 Conference from PR Tactics.


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