It’s Not You, It’s Us: Communicating To Employees During Transitions

With a recession looming on the horizon, organizations across every industry are feeling the heat. The pressure is on to cut costs, reduce overhead and stay competitive as consumers tighten their own belts. The last month alone has seen numerous behemoths downsize in various ways: Starbucks laid off 600 employees, while Reed Elsevier announced plans to sell its Reed Business Information (RBI) division in order to divest of its advertising-supported businesses. Both of these announcements had huge communications implications, as each was followed by the execution of distinct employee relations/HR strategies with varying degrees of success. In Starbucks' case, one week after the layoffs, the coffee retailer closed its 7,000+ shops for three hours to conduct nationwide employee training to "foster enthusiasm" among its 135,000 employees (who were likely concerned for their job security) and "improve the quality of the drinks" made by baristas. It was a strategic move that garnered significant press coverage; it was also used as a platform for competitor Dunkin' Donuts, which offered 99-cent espresso drinks while Starbucks was closed. As for the Reed announcement's aftermath, RBI CEO Tad Smith issued an internal memo to employees to reassure them that their jobs were safe. The only problem? The memo was leaked to the press, and Smith's words were all over the Internet almost instantly. Both of these scenarios highlight the impact that internal transitions can have on employees and communications professionals--and that's without even considering examples of the challenges brought on by, say, a merger or acquisition. As such, PR execs must be ready at all times to deploy sensitive internal news, and to mitigate the potentially negative fallout. The following is a checklist to help make this go as smoothly as possible. *Join forces with HR. The first step in effectively communicating during a transition is to work closely with the HR department and senior-most managers to coordinate message distribution. "In times of change, we meet to collect facts about the change and to decide how best to communicate the news to staff," says Carol Albright, SVP of human resources at the Advertising Specialty Institute (ASI). "At ASI, the president and CEO Timothy Andrews, my HR staff and the corporate communications director, Scott Fuhr, all work closely together." To help facilitate this cooperation, Jason Anthoine, president of The Cohesion Group, recommends taking these steps (for more on breaking down PR/HR silos, see Anthoine's article in the 02-04-08 issue of PRN titled "PR and HR: Why These Functions Aren't Kissing Cousins, and 5 Things You Can Do to Change That:): 1. Assign an account executive to HR. 2. Join the Society for Human Resources Management, an organization dedicated to advancing the HR profession. 3. Pitch collaborative projects between PR and HR before transitions/crises happen to get both parties accustomed to working together. 4. Identify opportunities to work on and support HR initiatives, especially benefits communications. 5. Mingle the two departments through occasional social events. Having a cooperative and collaborative relationship with the HR department year-round will always make relations during times of internal transition much more natural. *Make honesty your First Commandment. "Our first objective in communicating change within the company is to be honest with staff," Albright says. She recommends distributing major announcements from the CEO via e-mail and/or the company's Intranet along with a Q&A sheet that addresses anticipated questions or concerns from staff; this tactic was used when ASI acquired three new magazine brands for its publishing business. "The communication materials provided the who, what, where, when and why to the staff, and quickly eased anxieties about any changes by trying to address what the developments meant for them up front," Albright says. "If we weren't sure, we said so. If more questions were received from staff, the CEO replied and answered with the best information available." *Think outside your organization. As RBI executives experienced, the fast-paced media environment puts internal messages at risk for unintended public consumption. Nokia executives also learned this the hard way in January, when it was decided that one of their German plants shut down and outsource operations to lower-cost European sites. The result was that 2,300 workers were laid off; the only problem was that many of them heard the news via a radio report rather than from their managers. Clearly this was a miscommunication gone horribly awry, but it points to the need to consider how every stakeholder will interpret transition-related news, regardless of whether or not they are supposed to hear it. "One way we think about an announcement is to first envision what the information would look like if someone outside the company read it. Is it honest?" Albright says. "Communicate a message using the facts, and if the announcement falls into the hands of someone outside the company, the content can be confirmed by executives or spokespeople." *Anticipate a media frenzy, and empower employees with information accordingly. Especially against today's highly scrutinized business backdrop, the media--new or traditional-- will run with a story without second thought, so communications execs must be prepared to handle tough questions. More important, though, is to make employees well informed ahead of time so that they can speak knowledgeably, should they be contacted by a reporter. Albright recommends putting the name and contact info of the go-to spokesperson in the employee announcement so that everyone knows to whom the media should be directed. PRN CONTACTS: Carol Albright,; Jason Anthoine,

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