Inside Out: Employees as Our Best Brand Advocates

January 6, 2012

Communications and PR professionals understand the importance of nurturing their brand among external stakeholders. But as we plan and implement communication strategies, we often overlook one of our most critical audiences: employees. Our employees are our brand — the champions of the goods or services that our organization puts out to the world. They have knowledge of the organization and can speak about us in a genuine and authentic way.

Empowering employees to act as brand advocates will give them the confidence to reach their potential; likewise, their actions will contribute to the organization’s ability to deliver on its mission and brand promise.

Value your employees

Meaningful employee engagement is not something that communicators can inspire alone. An organizational culture that demonstrates daily that leaders value and reward employees for top performance and full commitment to the team must support it. We can optimize internal communications when leaders truly understand how crucial it is to communicate (and behave) in a way that motivates, inspires, informs and builds understanding of business decisions.

It’s our job as communicators to counsel leadership on how to connect employees to the larger purpose of the organization, both in their verbal and written communications. We can help others understand that a strong external brand depends on a strong internal culture. How customers perceive our organization is dependent on how engaged and committed the workforce is to delivering the best product or service.  

Give employees a sight line to your success

A significant driver of employee satisfaction is how well employees understand the way their job connects to the organization’s success. Internal communications provides the information employees need to see how their daily work contributes to the overall organization.

At Kaiser Permanente, the integrated managed care consortium, we created an internal message architecture — in collaboration with our national communicators and our eight regions and medical groups — to ensure that our leaders communicate messages consistently to our organization’s 182,000 employees and physicians. This includes providing specific phrasing for key internal messages that leaders use in correspondence, presentations and department meetings so that, whether they are in Ohio or Oregon, our leaders are speaking with one voice.

Online tools such as our strategy website allow employees to learn about our mission and strategic imperatives. To help managers build business literacy, we developed self-paced online learning modules on how to communicate about the organization.
We have hundreds of courses to help employees with professional development and to support our culture as a continuous learning organization. Knowledge is power — and delivering that power to our people helps the whole organization achieve its goals.

Inform employees with timely, relevant information

Communicating timely and relevant information to employees — whether positive or negative — before the public receives it, is a basic tenet of strong organizational communication. Employees care deeply about their organization and have a sense of ownership of the brand. This feeling allows them to be involved, feel valued and be equipped to represent our organization in the best light. We know that friends, family, colleagues and neighbors will ask our employees about organizational news or issues, so giving employees the facts first is important.

At Kaiser Permanente, we preview new initiatives and strategies internally before sharing them externally. This allows us to share our principles and philosophy and highlight the value our organization places on employees and physicians.

We send information to top leadership for them to share with their employees. And we occasionally send important and timely email messages to all employees. Knowing that many of our employees are not online because they are taking care of patients and members, we ask managers to communicate to their employees through group huddles. We also post vital information on our website’s News Center, which, though available publicly, is a place employees can turn to for the facts.

Monthly town hall meetings for our program office employees are co-hosted by our chairman and CEO, George Halvorson, and Jack Cochran, M.D., executive director of the Permanente Federation. The sessions are available via teleconference (and we record them for future listening). The leaders share information and updates about the priorities of the organization and highlight ongoing activities. Typically, a guest presenter will address specific initiatives. Our eight regions have similar meetings, which their local leaders led.

Our intranet, customized by region, provides online news and information, features, and leadership columns that reinforce our mission, our brand promise and our service credo, “We’re here to make lives better.”

Giving employees a sneak peek of external marketing and advertising campaigns also builds ownership of the brand. Hosting celebrations at the onset of a new campaign brings energy and excitement that translate externally.

We preview our “Thrive” advertising campaign to employees and physicians through an internal launch, which helps fuel employee pride and enthusiasm. We debut and host the ads on our intranet and share them at team meetings. We also hold contests and events at our facilities that are linked to campaign themes. These kinds of internal activities give employees a deeper understanding of Kaiser Permanente.

Through our Labor Management Partnership, we publish a print magazine called Hank, which team members distribute at our facilities and place in staff mailboxes and on newspaper racks in break rooms and lobbies. For frontline employees with Internet access, we host a website that they can access from home. This allows them to get up-to-date information, read feature stories and blogs, and watch video blogs at their leisure.

Harness the power of social media

Social media makes it possible for employees to effectively reach out to others in the organization, exchange ideas, provide or receive feedback and learn from others. It also helps remove silos that have isolated workers in the past.

For example, on our Facebook business page and on Twitter, many of our followers and friends are employees who comment on the positive news that we share. They often say that they feel proud to work here, and their publicly visible comments reinforce the brand. Employees also engage with us on our YouTube channel.

Employees also have access to IdeaBook, our internal collaboration platform where more than 27,000 of our employees and physicians share ideas and information about our work and our brand.

Employees can also participate in our growing number of blogs, covering topics like healthy eating, Kaiser Permanente’s rich history and Care Stories of our members in their own words.

Innovate to reach employees

Even with all of the channels available to communicate to employees, the ideal way to learn how to reach them best is simply to ask.

To enhance communication with frontline employees who don’t have access to the Internet or email at work, we recently held an ideation session at our Garfield Innovation Center. The session provided us with a set of ideas to pilot test — from using digital signage boards in facilities to new communications skills training for managers.

As part of the process, we’ve engaged in video ethnography, where we follow frontline staff with a video camera and see what a day in their lives really looks like. We analyze the video and look for any opportunities to connect with them.

Communicate well-being

We believe that healthy employees deliver the best care and services to our members and to one another. Our Healthy Workforce programs are designed to support our employees in their efforts to be healthy. For example, we created KP Walk!, an internal walking campaign. This online resource uses scenic virtual trails to help employees track the minutes they walk, learn about health benefits and safety tips, and connect with “sole mates,” other Kaiser Permanente employees who are walkers.

Employees can opt in to receive regular walking tips and earn rewards and incentives as they reach key milestones. Through Healthy Workforce, team members also gain access to employee assistance programs, wellness coaching and tools for healthy eating and active living. We communicate these programs in a multitude of ways: email, Web video, employee stories, posters, home mailers and letters from leadership.

Employees are our most valuable resource. Investing in them with clear and compelling communications, supported by a strong and healthy culture, will help them meet and exceed expectations, deliver tremendous returns and be our best brand advocates. 

Diane Gage Lofgren, APR, Fellow PRSA, is senior vice president, brand strategy, communications and public relations, at Kaiser Permanente. She is a member of the PRSA Board of Directors. Catherine Hernandez Tirey is vice president, national corporate communications, at Kaiser Permanente.


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