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Corporate Communications Can Make You a Winner

July 1, 2001
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, Featured Article
It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place," theRed Queen explained to Alice in Through the Looking Glass. "If youwant to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that."Two traditional support functions, human resources and corporate communications,had been running in place for quite a long time. But no longer. And in their effortsto renew and transform themselves, they have often been working together to "getsomewhere else."

    Over the years, there have always been areas of cooperationbetween these two functions. But rarely has there been so much serious collaborationin areas of strategic importance to the organization.

    In our experience, we have countedat least 10 different areas where corporate communications -- especially employeecommunications -- has found significant ways to collaborate with HR. Here areshort profiles of each of these collaborations, and the impact they seek:

  1. Recruitment and retention
  2. Launch of new policies and procedures
  3. Performance appraisal
  4. Post-merger integration (or post-spin-off regrouping)
  5. Employee benefits
  6. Business literacy
  7. Communication skills enhancement
  8. Reward system communications
  9. Reputation management
  10. Aligning performance with corporate strategy
Recruitment and retention
    Attracting and holding on to talented people has becomean HR priority, particularly in fields where skills are in high demand, and thelure of dot-coms is especially strong. Corporate communications can play severalroles to help HR address this concern:
  • Improving the quality and impact of recruiting materials and messages

  • Enhancing the new employee orientation process, including the communicationof key cultural values and career growth opportunities

  • Effectively presenting employee benefits plans as a corporate asset (see Employee Benefits section below)

  • Recognizing employee accomplishment

  • Keeping employees well informed

  • Expanding the channels for employees to use for raising questions, andfor sharing their opinions about the organization and how to make it better

    In recent years, organizations have found the lattertwo challenges to be particularly critical in retaining talented employees.The following example provides illustration:

In the increasingly dynamic financial services industry, a leadingplayer faced a retention problem for the first time in its history. Surveysof younger employees conducted by HR discovered a set of job expectations significantlydifferent from those of older cohorts, including a strong need to be kept inthe know and to have their opinions listened to.

The survey also brought tolight what had been an inadequate corporate effort to help employees connectwith one another, with the company, and with big-picture issues facing the firm.Not only was this causing some people to leave, but word also had gotten "outon the street," and this was affecting recruiting.

The company did not, in fact, have a well-developed employee communication program,so building this function became step number one. Another strategy involvedthe development -- with HR -- of a more versatile and engaging intranet site.

Plans included designing an intranet that would support increased informationsharing, both up and down the organization as well as across traditional organizationalboundaries. And to make organizational communications more personal, the planalso called for a series of "town hall meetings" that would featurereal-time conversation with senior management on where the company was headed,and what the career implications might be.

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Launch of new policies and procedures
    When important policies and work practices are introduced,HR wants to be sure of three things:

  1. To get the attention of the workforce

  2. To satisfactorily explain what changes are to be made, and why they'reimportant

  3. To allow for healthy dialogue between management and the rest of the workforce

    Effective communication tactics are critical to makingthese messages both compelling and well understood. Open communication channelsand forums for raising issues are also critical ingredients for success. Eachof these three objectives can be better served through an active collaborationbetween HR and corporate communications. Here are two examples of such collaboration.

  • When valuable proprietary information began to turn up at the competition,a major grocery products company called a huddle to develop a more effectiveinformation security system. At the heart of their plan was a program tochange the way employees worldwide think about and treat valuable companyinformation.

    Through an intranet site designed by corporate communications,the program offered information, turnkey resources, and "how-to's"so employees could learn to better protect the company's valuable informationassets. And the program also helped share less sensitive information morebroadly within the organization to drive efficiencies and best practices.

  • In a very different situation, a large truck manufacturer wanted to establisha new set of work rules that would reduce the number of grievances filed.Here, HR worked with communications to train several levels of management,including frontline supervisors, on how to present the new work rules, andanswer questions in this highly sensitive area.

    The result of this intervention-- coming on the heels of an extended work stoppage -- was a surprisinglylow number of union incidents, and an improved work climate for both sides.

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Performance appraisal
    Following the typical guidelines of this traditionalHR responsibility is for some organizations an exercise of going through themotions. Yet most companies want employees to be increasingly goal-oriented,and accountable for measurable performance outcomes. How can the performance-appraisalprocess play a more productive and meaningful role in support of higher levelsof performance and improved feedback to employees? Here are two illustrationsof this challenge being picked up jointly by HR and corporate communications:

  1. For a leading architectural firm, the main problem was that managers didn'tfeel that the program in place made a good fit with their normal way ofworking and relating with people. Even more to the point, the task of havingperformance-evaluation conversations didn't come naturally and hence, theyrarely happened at all. When the problem was identified at least partiallyas a communications problem, the company could begin to address it morerealistically (see below).

  2. In another company that worked primarily on government projects, the problemwas largely the same, with the additional dimension of a general lack ofspecificity regarding what was to be evaluated. Once again, the processdidn't really fit the reality of the work, and holding conversations aboutperformance appraisal seemed artificial at best.

    Both companies approached the task of improving theirperformance-appraisal process as being in large measure a communications challenge.In both cases, the improvement strategy focused on participating managers developingtheir own criteria and "scripts," and thus being better able to ownwhat was now becoming more of a professional-development process.

    The role thatcommunications played in each instance was to work alongside HR to sound outmanagers, then facilitate a workshop that clearly acknowledged the importanceof making performance-appraisal conversations easier to manage. Sincethe workshops also provided the opportunity for participants to develop theirown performance criteria and success indicators, ownership in the process wasstrengthened as well.

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Post-merger integration (or post-spin-off regrouping)
    Much has been written about this topic. But we stilldon't always get it right. Two companies that did a good job were also successfulin another kind of integration -- coordinating how HR and corporate communicationsmight work together to make these restructurings as relatively painless as possiblefor employees.

  • A large transportation company had acquired a significant portion of theassets of another, including some valuable employees. The challenge wasto hold on to the employees, and to make them feel wanted, valued, and productivewhen they joined the acquiring company. A task force of HR and communicationsstaff from both companies met to plan how best to manage this integration.

    Their recommendations led to an emphasis on how the newcomers might bestbe welcomed, and how they could be mentored so as to get the lay of thenew land as quickly as possible. Two separate program initiatives were putin place to accomplish the recommendations, and task force members -- particularlythose from the acquired company -- played a lead role in making them work.

  • For a spin-off from a leading information-storage company, the collaborationbetween HR and communications focused on how to quickly engage the "spun-off"-- and somewhat disoriented -- workforce in shaping its new workplace andits new business. The challenge was to build morale and support for thenew company, while getting employees excited about the future. The strategyinvolved a communication campaign that would educate employees about thenew business opportunity, and an initiative to engage all employees in aplanning process that generated ideas for how to succeed.

    This ownership-building effort accomplished its objectives.Employees embraced the new business plan and stayed engaged as planners. Nokey employees were lost. The company was able to maintain business momentum,with strong initial earnings and sustained stock prices.

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Employee benefits
    At a time of mounting pressure to control benefits costs,HR people are simultaneously aware of the importance of making the corporatebenefits plan an asset in recruitment and retention. So HR departments oftensee benefits plan changes as an opportunity to set new expectations, attainhigher enrollment percentages, and create a new "contract" with employeesthat invites more shared responsibility in shaping optimal plans for everyone.The challenge in each of these opportunities is to communicate well -- withcandor, clarity, and creativity.

  • A hotel chain wanted to launch a non-traditional program that rewardedemployees monetarily for taking preventive health-care measures. To introducethe program, the company designed a communications initiative that centeredon simple yet surprising health-care facts (e.g., "a can of soda containsone cup of sugar"), displayed in high employee traffic areas. In addition,key health-care messages were systematically delivered through employeemeetings, special events, and a video featuring testimonials from currentprogram participants.

  • For a large credit union, the challenge was to use the launch of a new401(k) plan to reposition the entire benefits program from its identityas an entitlement to one of reward for performance. The strategyused to support HR's initiative was to enlist the help of the most crediblecommunicators inside the organization, the branch managers.

    While specialmaterials were sent directly to employees to pique their interest, branchmanagers were armed with an interactive presentation to help employees andtheir spouses better understand the benefits of participation in the newplan. The outcome of the communications campaign was a 6 percent rise inplan participation.

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Business literacy
    Companies increasingly feel the need to help their workforcesbecome more aware of the business environment and of how their business works.The premise is simple: If employees are knowledgeable about the marketplace,how money is made, and what customers want, they will be better able to helpthe company be more competitive. Here are two examples of HR/communicationscollaboration on improving business literacy.

  • A global communications company had undergone some major restructuring,including both acquisitions and spin-offs, to reposition itself in an industrythat was being changed dramatically by new technologies. To engage all handsin moving aggressively into the future, several support functions, includingHR and communications, joined together to better inform and educate theworkforce about ongoing moves and decisions.

    Two set pieces in this initiative were a newly developed intranet that featuredstories on where the business was going (with opportunities for Q&A), anda direct e-mail communication from the CEO to all employees. The intranet siteis meant to be educative as well as a timely source of information; it willadd context and depth to news items that illustrate where the company is headed,and why.

    The CEO e-mail -- judged to be the most popular corporate communicationin the organization -- is sent only when the CEO needs to announce (or set acontext for) an anticipated event or a recent decision. Employees greatly appreciateits directness, as well as the opportunity to get important information straightfrom the head of the company.

  • A regional energy company needed to reshape its culture and performanceexpectations in light of projected deregulation and outside competition.The company decided to rebuild its strategy around a service-oriented corporatebrand, requiring that employees see themselves as implementers ofsuch a brand promise.

    Working with HR, communications designed an education campaign that utilizedtwo delivery vehicles:

    • the widely read corporate newsletter, to which a supplement was addedto regularly address the changing business environment and the variouscompany products and services that would be brought into play

    • a group meeting agenda featuring a "learning map" exercisethat would lead employees to draw informed conclusions about the futureof the business

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Communication skills enhancement
    A considerable amount of recent research has pointedto the enormous significance of the supervisor's communications to his or heremployees. Often the most trusted source of information and the most reliablesource of answers to urgent questions, the supervisor can have a major impacton employee focus and morale, especially during times of transition and change.The two companies below both invested in training their supervisors to enhancetheir communication skills. One of them actually started the process with topmanagement.

  • At an international bio-medical services organization, employee surveyshad indicated confusion and lowered morale. Key people were also defectingto the competition. The senior management team determined to target improvingcommunication across the organization as a priority goal. Their strategyinvolved getting out some forceful and consistent messages, but also raisingthe quality of management communication with employees.

    A series of workshops,following some organization-wide communications addressing issues identifiedin the survey, helped to orient several levels of managers on how they couldincrease dialogue, improve their listening skills, and drive home severalcritical points about recent directions and why they made sense.

  • A series of restructurings had created an atmosphere of wariness and fearfor many of this defense contractor's employees. To address the situation,the company's CEO prompted the training and development and the communicationsstaffs to make communication between supervisors and their teams a criticalimprovement goal.

    The challenge was met by designing and conducting two-waycommunications workshops for more than a thousand middle and frontline supervisors.

    A second dimension of this initiative was to create interactive bulletinboards in high-traffic rooms and halls to keep people informed. The workshopsreceived national recognition when they were cited in a Conference Boardreport.

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Reward system communications
    As corporate reward systems continue to add performance-contingentdimensions, and become more versatile in their use of alternative reward andrecognition strategies, the role of communicating these elements takes on increasedimportance. Jerry McAdams, co-author of the recent book RewardingTeams: Lessons from the Trenches, concludes that companies that are effectiveat motivating teams "communicate, communicate, communicate."

    The potentialoutcomes from HR and corporate communications collaborating around reward-systemcommunications are clear: more forceful, more widely understood, and more effectivereward and recognition practices.

  • An energy company needing to drive customer satisfaction as a leading businessmeasure sought to reposition its employee reward system around a customer-satisfactionindex scored on a quarterly basis. Working with the HR department, corporatecommunications helped to launch the new compensation plan in the contextof business strategy and the changing energy marketplace. Parallel to thiseffort, communications ran a series of articles in the employee newsletterabout company initiatives related to customer service, and improving customersatisfaction. The satisfaction index showed a steady climb for six quarters,and has basically stayed at this level since.

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Reputation management
    Managing the company's reputation as a corporate citizenis a task of growing importance as companies seek to strengthen their presencein the communities where they do business, and seek to improve relationshipswith a variety of non-client constituents. The task of presenting the face ofthe company to the outside world typically falls to corporate communications.But community relations, corporate philanthropy, and even employee relations-- usually more attached to the HR function -- also play a significant rolein shaping corporate citizenship. Bringing them all together has the potentialto create major synergies, and greater success, as the following case attests.

  • A global services company desired to complement its corporate communicationsactivities with a more targeted effort to strengthen relationships in localmarkets. It organized a task force at the corporate level that includedall the staff support functions having a stake in healthy local communityrelations. Led by corporate communications, the task force designed andconducted a series of planning workshops at sites across the organization.

    The workshops challenged a mix of departmental managers from each regionto develop strategies for making the company more visible -- and more admired-- in these communities. Project designs featured a more personal and thoroughgoingapproach to investing philanthropic dollars in community organizations andprojects.

    As a result of this active collaboration, opinion surveys haveshown, the company actually strengthened its reputation as an admired organization.

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Aligning performance with corporate strategy
    As companies restructure and shift strategies to keepup with changing markets and competition, there is often a lag in work unitawareness of new priorities, and in understanding the implications of new directionsfor their jobs. In the following example, HR and corporate communications workedclosely to help the workforce keep critical business goals on target.

  • An international ag-chem company had gone through two significant mergers,and now needed to regroup and create a more unified front around its businessstrategy. Spurred by an internal advisory committee that had researchedthe "balanced scorecard" approach to strategy, the HR and communicationsdepartments joined forces to develop and launch a scorecard initiative thatlinked up with a new performance-appraisal process.

    The effort involvedsenior management messages to the workforce to position the project, launchsessions for all employees on how the appraisal process would connect toa balanced scorecard, and a series of workshops for supervisory managerson how they might shape their own scorecards with their work teams.

    Theoutcome was a more clearly defined "line-of-sight" between workunit objectives and corporate goals, and a more focused and knowledgeableworkforce.

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"Getting somewhere else" together
    Over the past decade, both human resources and corporatecommunications have increasingly found seats at the table where business strategydecisions are made. In the process, they have also found opportunities to worktogether in advancing the fortunes of the business on a variety of fronts.

    In particular, they have shown an aptitude for collaboratingon raising employee knowledge and morale, with positive consequences to productivityand job retention. As this trend continues, executives from both these corporatefunctions will find further ways to turn their common stake into a common cause.

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