Techniques Outlined For Improving C-Suite Engagement With Employees

If you go searching for the organizational crossroads between the C-suite and employees, you’ll often find an internal communicator playing the pivotal role in helping each side understand the other. There is much to learn about this in the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) Commission on Organizational Communication’s new study, “Best-in-Class Practices in Employee Communications: Through the Lens of 10
Global Leaders.”

In-depth interviews conducted by KRC Research involved internal communications execs at Cargill, Chevron, FedEx, GE, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald’s, Navistar, Petrobras and Toyota. Time and again, the interviewees underscored the importance of top management involvement in helping employees understand corporate direction. Among the practical tips that emerged from the study:

• If you want the executive team to be star communicators, treat them as both a channel and an audience unto themselves.

Respondents in the IPR study spoke at length about how they provide corporate and business leaders with what they need to be effective communicators in their own areas of the business.

“The business unit and function leaders who make up our top 250 group are themselves a key audience, because they are in a position to translate the enterprise narrative for their specific audiences,” said one interviewee.

This person added, “We have designed a program to make sure they understand the company, the company’s strategic intent, what our priorities are, and how they can relate that to their own business unit or area. We do regular telephone briefings with them. We do regular email updates to them. We have a leadership communications Internet site that houses everything we make available to them. We do regular communications tool kits so they have slides, videos and talking points.”



When top executives understand their own potential as communicators, they start seeing new opportunities, such as the COO who one research participant described as a renaissance leader. “He’s already thinking, ‘Are my communications methods reaching the next generation coming up?’ So he has challenged us on the social media side. How are we reaching those employees who expect completely different methods of communication similar to what they’re using outside of the workplace?” Here are some other ideas.

• Some leading companies are deliberately putting employee and executive communications together in the organization.

One of the IPR interviewees even carries the title of VP, Leadership and Employee Communications.

Not surprisingly, the study found ample evidence that good speechwriters understand that the job is an opportunity to influence policy, while good internal communicators know that the job is about changing the culture. Putting the two together can be magic.

• Communications people must be business people first and foremost. “The objective isn’t the best internal communications plan, or the best program on a specific project. Our job when we come in every day is: How do we help the organization sell more product, as competitively and at the highest margins possible? That’s the kind of the mindset that we have,” said one respondent. It could as easily be said about helping the business enter new markets, building community engagement and reputation, and enabling employees to see where they fit and how the company’s success can also be theirs.

• A C-suite that listens to employees is critically important, so create the channels to make that possible—even inevitable.

The listening can take place in town halls, strategy sessions, the CEO’s blog, or old-fashioned management by walking around the office. It’s as much about leadership style and engagement as anything else, though the executives need to be as open to negative feedback as to positive comments.


“This is first time we have had a woman as the CEO,” said one interviewee. “She has worked for the company for almost 40 years, so employees realize that she is one of us. That’s a boost for the way people receive her communications.”

You can’t get there without two-way communication, and you can’t have two-way communication if the executive isn’t listening.

• If it’s going to count, you have to measure it.

The C-suite doesn’t necessarily care about the latest, greatest method of communications. What they want to know is, why should I invest in this function?

Whether it’s the investment of personal time or financial resources, corporate leaders want to know what value internal communications brings.

If you’re in the circle of senior leaders, you can get immediate feedback. It may be subjective and anecdotal, but it’s important because they are the ones who decide if you stay at the table. Combine that feedback with quantitative metrics at all levels—including for those with whom you have set communications goals—and you have a robust system to measure progress.

“At the highest level, we have what is known as an enterprise scorecard,” one respondent said. “That’s actually how the performance of the company is rated by the board. One of the critical components is company reputation, and within that, reputation among employees that gets published in the proxy statement to shareowners at the end of the year.” PRN


Frank Ovaitt
Frank Ovaitt

Frank Ovaitt is president-CEO of the Institute of Public Relations. He can be reached at




This article appeared in the September 30 issue of PR News. Subscribe to PR News today to receive weekly comprehensive coverage of the most fundamental PR topics from visual storytelling to crisis management to media training.