An Internal Focus: Employee Communicators on the Trends Shaping the Workplace

April 2, 2018


Q-and-A Participants:

Lise Harwin, APR
Internal Communications Manager
Port of Portland
Portland, Ore.

Anthony Bolton
Senior Manager of Employee Communications
Gulfstream Aerospace Corp.
Savannah, Ga.

Peyton Woodson Cooper
Manager, Internal Communications
LBJ Hospital, Harris Health System

Chuck Gose
Strategic Adviser at SocialChorus
Founder of ICology
Brownsburg, Ind.

Carrie Basham Young
Talk Social to Me
Mill Valley, Calif.


We asked five members of PRSA’s Employee Communications Section about the state of the sector. Here’s what they had to say:

How can we best align, inspire and connect today’s employees?


Lise Harwin, APR: I believe we need to start the process early, before an employment offer is even extended. The employee journey begins with recruitment, continues through onboarding and extends all the way through their final day on the job. When we consistently communicate core values — on a careers website, in orientations and with our everyday communication tools — employees can understand, get on board and get excited about an organizational vision and their role in driving it forward.

Anthony Bolton: We need to tell stories that reach employees on emotional and personal levels. The more communicators can humanize routine corporate messages, the more likely employees will feel like they’re part of something bigger and be inspired to do more.

Peyton Woodson Cooper: Look for ways to surprise and delight your employees. During Hurricane Harvey, Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) Hospital gave “kisses” to our staff. We had tons of Hershey’s Kisses on hand and any time we saw someone who looked a bit overwhelmed by storm duty, we would ask, “Would you like a kiss?”

The question naturally caught the employees off guard. However, when they saw the chocolate kiss in our hand, they smiled at the simple gesture. Whether it’s bite-sized candy or a few words of praise on a Post-it note, small acts of kindness can yield big results for employee engagement.

Chuck Gose: I think there’s a mismatch between what companies give their employees and what employees want in the workplace. Companies [provide] a job but there’s so much more that employees want. They want community. They want to feel respected, cared about and recognized. And they want a sense of purpose or cause.

We all want to make an impact and identify with a mission. This is all part of a psychological contract between the employer and the employee. And communicators can play such a huge role in helping deliver these three things.

Carrie Basham Young: Our research indicates that employees want to hear about people “just like them” at work. To align and inspire today’s employees, discover and circulate stories that are crafted by your people, not just by those in internal communications.


Do you see any trends with leadership styles, tools or internal programs designed to engage staff?


LH: There is a charm to the throwback, whether it’s Polaroid pictures of new employees posted on a central wall, or a hand-signed holiday card from an executive. When we built our onboarding program, we took a cue from the world of higher education and embraced the “fat envelope,” with the thought that landing an exciting new job can be just as memorable as getting accepted to college. In the period between the job offer and the first day, we mailed our own fat envelope to new hires, stuffed with goodies to drive excitement and drive home core values.

In a program that included tons of touch points — from a custom onboarding website that allows employees to fill out paperwork in advance to a peer guide that can mentor them through the first six months — this old-school mailer sent to their home address was by far the most popular element.

AB: Employee engagement lives and dies with leaders. Leaders who understand this are getting real with employees. Some people call this transparency, but it’s much more than leaders telling employees what they know when they know it.

Engaging leaders create opportunities to listen to employees and tie what they learn to the messages they create. The messages resonate more because they focus on employee interests. And when those messages are presented in a narrative that helps employees understand how important they are to an organization’s success, everything is possible.

PWC: Employee-generated content is a lifesaver for small communications teams with limited budgets. We wanted to grow our internal photo library, so we launched a photography project and asked employees to snap pictures of their team members as they performed their daily work.

The images were used to create, “A Day in the Life of LBJ.” We drew a timeline on a wall and marked each hour of the day. We then displayed the photos and used them to celebrate how our employees work 24/7 to improve patient outcomes.

CG: I’m glad to see that communicators recognize that employee engagement is not a survey, and never was. The new leaders who are engaging employees by showing interest — admitting they don’t have the answers, and respecting those who do — will be the leaders who motivate, encourage and support an entire organization.

Simply put, employees want to know that leaders give a damn. Listening to feedback is the first step. But it’s then delivering on that feedback that will take leaders and companies to the next level.

CBY: We are seeing Workplace by Facebook skyrocket in popularity as an all-employee communication platform, and Yammer is back on the scene as a collaboration hub for employees. 2018 will be the year that internal communications can truly harness these tools to modernize digital, two-way communication.


Can you share some best practices for reaching the social and digital workforce who are often oversaturated with 24/7/365 access to communications?


LH: About 82 percent of our workforce is on our employee social network and, of all the group discussions, there’s one that blows all of the others out of the water: our Photostream. The theme is broad — share photos of life at work, like people, places or things — and the content just keeps coming!

We’ve discovered amazingly talented photographers within our ranks, captured a ton of events and activities that a small comms team could never get out and cover, and leveraged the best-quality content for external social channels. Everyone can access the app on their phone, post pics, comment and Like, which has really increased overall engagement and connections with colleagues.

AB: Reduce content and make what you publish more relevant and enticing. By using data analytics to better understand the news topics that appeal most to employees, you can shape your content strategy around what employees want. My team published 36 percent fewer news articles on our intranet in 2017 than in the previous year, but average views increased by 94 percent. Metrics are also useful for identifying content that doesn’t get traction on digital platforms but works well in other formats.

PWC: Never forget the value of face-to-face communication. Step away from the computer and host monthly in-person team meetings and quarterly town hall events. Also, consider rounding [out] your offices and departments so that employees can have face time with leaders and receive organizational updates. Sometimes our leaders push an ice cream cart across campus and offer treats to employees.

CG: Mobile is where it’s at. It’s cliché to talk about how we all have computers in our pockets, but the fact is that we do. An assumption a lot of communicators make is that employees will never download an app for their phone. And that’s false. Employees will do this if you deliver content and value to them. This channel works so well, in both good times and bad. And it’s about establishing a strong cadence of communication with a mix of the need-to-know, nice-to-know and fun-to-know content.

CBY: Our best tip is to ask the workforce what they want to hear, and from whom. Learn which channels they pay attention to, and optimize for the content they will consume. Listening is the best way to uncover the levers to pull with various audiences.


What’s top of mind in the employee/internal communications sector right now? What are your peers talking about?


LH: Diversity, equity and inclusion, and not being afraid to take a stance on issues. Communicators often talk the talk, helping craft leadership messages espousing the importance of core values. But it all falls apart in the eyes of employees when our organizational actions aren’t in alignment and our leaders aren’t actually walking the walk.
As communicators, we have an incredible opportunity to hold our organizations and our leaders accountable on behalf of our teams and, more broadly, our communities.

AB: Internal social media is always part of the dialogue. It’s great to see the technology offerings broaden and become more sophisticated, and expertise in this space is more robust than what we saw years ago. Social in the workplace is not a fad. It will do to intranets what intranets did to company newsletters. If we hope to keep the attention of employee audiences, then internal social media is an evolutionary step we can’t ignore.

PWC: In competitive fields like health care, employee engagement must be an essential part of an organization’s recruitment and retention strategy. Health-care workers have plenty of options for jobs. A solid employee-engagement strategy, fueled by outstanding employee communications, can be one of the defining reasons why a staff member chooses to remain at LBJ Hospital.

CG: All the time spent talking about employee engagement in years past is now being focused on employee experience. And I think that’s the right thing for communicators. It’s a chance for communicators to broaden their role in an organization.

All companies are talking about customer experience, and employee experience is the bedrock of any great customer experience. So this is a communicator’s chance to increase their role and be part of a larger corporate conversation.

CBY: Collaboration and tool overload are top of mind these days. Employees are frustrated with dozens of tools for different communication reasons. It’s confusing and it creates information silos. We’re seeing a lot of “which tool, when?” work being done to combat the confusion. 

Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.


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