8 Tips for Communicating During Times of Change

Carrie Fox

As public relations professionals, we spend most of our days communicating public messages on behalf of the companies, nonprofits, government agencies, or clients that we serve. We regularly hone our craft, we soak in case studies, and we learn from others around us. And yet, when difficult internal messages need to be communicated—perhaps layoffs are planned, or a merger is underway—many executives and communications professionals find themselves much less comfortable with how to communicate such change to their own teams and employees: the most important audiences of all.

As any executive or communications director who has been through a transition can attest, it is easy to forget that those “on the inside” leading up to a major transition have more time to process the upcoming change than those who are not directly involved in the transition. That processing time is critical to helping employees understand and get beyond it.

As we enter 2013, and all the potential change that this year could bring for businesses—good and bad—I’ve outlined a handful of helpful communications tips to remember, if and when you are faced with relaying difficult news to your own most important audiences:

  1. Test your messages. When it comes to explaining organizational change, there is no substitute for a well-crafted message platform. But to get there, you must start at the beginning. What do you want to communicate, and what do you want people to hear? Corporate messaging requires careful shifting during a transition and it is often useful to test out the new messaging on a subset of stakeholders, especially if you have the time to do so. The forms of testing vary greatly by organization, and can include focus groups, employee surveys, or a more informal roundtable where you or your CEO can practice delivering the message, and share feedback in the process. Find the vehicle that fits best within your organizational culture, and use it. 

  1. Over-prepare all spokespeople. Your leadership team does not only need to understand how to explain the transition, they need to understand when they should and should not be the ones to speak publicly on the matter. They need to know how to speak in concert with one another, and how to keep the emphasis in a positive and controlled place. They also need to be able to drill down and explain what change means to various audiences. Developing the message platform mentioned in tip 1 is the first step in ensuring consistent spokespeople, as is a well-crafted Q&A document that can be shared as a resource with those closest to the transition. They will thank you for the additional direction, and you’ll gain comfort in knowing that your team is in sync on the issue.

  1. Create an open forum. Whether you’re the CEO or director of communications, as a member of your organization’s transition team, you will have knowledge of an organizational change before most others. As such, you will be given additional time to digest and understand the changes that will soon take effect. It’s typical for staff to want to interpret what they’re seeing and hearing, so when the time comes to share the news, do it carefully and tactfully, and leave plenty of time for questions and conversation.
    Create an open forum for staff to raise concerns. Perhaps you host a meeting for employees every afternoon for a week following the transition, or schedule small group meetings with staff teams immediately following the internal announcement. The transparency that this conveys, and the open dialogue that it offers, can be remarkably helpful in keeping employee morale high, especially through what may be a difficult time. 

  1. Cater to your team. In the case of layoffs, it is rightly appropriate to be concerned about the people that you’re letting go, and being transparent is key. But in many ways, you should be more concerned about the people staying behind. Employees need some comfort that their jobs are secure and that the ship has been righted. There is a good chance that they’ll be asked to take on more work, at the same pay grade, without an immediate feeling of what their future inside the organization looks like. Take the time to meet one on one or in small group settings with your employees, reinforce why your organization needs them, and listen to what they have to say.

  1. Report what you can. You built that message platform for a reason, so stick to it. Don’t overreach, and don’t use impromptu staff meetings as a time to go off-script. The truth is, you don’t know exactly how the transition will play out. You don’t know if the culture of the organization will be affected, or, in the case of downsizing, if more people will be impacted. Report only what you can, and report often. 

  1. Decide on a timeline. There is no rule of thumb for whether to announce the news all at once in a “rip the Band-Aid off” technique, or slowly over a set period of time. Sometimes the effect of the news isn’t even clear to the leadership of an organization, and so a carefully calibrated or tiered announcement schedule with some room for the news to evolve is required.

    For example, imagine that a CEO learns she is ill, and must immediately take a leave of absence, or that an executive resigns unexpectedly due to a spouse’s job transfer overseas. In these cases, the transition itself requires time, and the communications strategy must be built accordingly. But in other cases, there is great benefit to laying out an entire transition in one fell swoop. In late 2010, we guided an organization through a large merger and leadership change. We supported the new executive team in communicating the change to all employees, board members and donors, and within 24 hours, we broke the news publicly in a controlled story on CNN, followed by several related print and online stories. By proactively engaging the right media outlet to help break the news, the organization’s stakeholders felt an immediate positive effect, and the buzz around the national media campaign dissipated any concerns about the transition change. Whatever the case, a plan for communicating to the staff, board, donors or investors, media and others needs to be in place from the very start. Through it all, be as clear as possible about the transition—good or bad—and you’ll see far greater buy-in from your team.

  1. Don’t forget anyone. When you’re strategizing on the timeline that is right for your organization, be sure to think through all audiences, and how the change affects each of them. Include audience specific talking points in your message platform (tip 1) and ensure that your spokespeople are prepared to deliver messages appropriately (tip 2). Cut down on confusion and chatter among groups by being consistent in your printed, digital and spoken messages. The coordination of a public announcement, if it makes sense, happens only after the appropriate audiences have had time to digest and understand the planned changes. In the end, no one will remember if the media covered the appointment of a new CEO on the day she started, or weeks later. You only have one chance to make a first impression; take the time to make sure those who are most critical to the organization are aware of the transition before they read about it in the company blog, on social media or in the news.

  1. Move on. Once you have determined that the news has been appropriately disseminated—internally and externally—and everyone has heard, understood and accepted it, move on. Focus your attention, and that of the organization, on better news and the future that lies ahead.

Carrie Fox is the founder and president of C.Fox Communications, a small communications agency committed to telling the stories of its mission-driven clients in ways that make people stop, listen and care. Carrie can be reached at carrie@cfoxcommunications.com. Follow her and the agency at @carriefox and @cfoxcomm, respectively.