CAMPAIGNS: Internal communications - Rival workers set asideanimosities

Client: The Denver Newspaper Agency (Denver)

PR Team: JohnstonWells PR (Denver)

Campaign: Denver Newspaper Agency Launch

Time Frame: September 2000-January 2001

Budget: dollars 125,000



The decision by The Denver Post and its rival, Rocky Mountain News, to

combine business operations presented the the newspapers with many

audiences to inform - including readers, vendors and advertisers - but

none was more important than employees.



After all, workers at each publication were accustomed to viewing the

other as an enemy. Both newspapers and JohnstonWells PR, the agency

brought in to handle communications, were aware that this type of

scenario can lead to unrest and, in some cases, strikes.



'It was a 100-year war,' says Michele Wells, principal of

JohnstonWells.



Strategy



The combination would create a new entity, the Denver Newspaper Agency,

for the two papers' business functions, which include advertising,

circulation, human resources and information technology, while

maintaining separate editorial departments.



The deal had to be approved by the US Department of Justice, but no one

knew when that would happen. 'I got a lot of gray hairs over this,'

Wells says. 'The history is that the Justice Department always approves

these on a Friday at 4pm.'



Agency and client didn't want to upset the approval by speaking out

about the proposal beforehand. Once the Justice Department approved the

move, there would be a 10-day 'quiet period,' during which the public

could comment.



The agency had until October 13 to put together an initial employee

communications plan. The idea was to hold all meetings and conduct most

of the communications on the Denver Newspaper Agency's first official

day of business.



'It was critical that the employees knew from the moment we began to

operate that we wanted them to be in the loop about what was going on

with this transition,' says Carol H. Green, VP of human resources and

labor relations for the Denver Newspaper Agency.



Sensitive communications areas included changing benefits, employee

relocations and workers' fears about layoffs, which the company was not

planning.



Tactics



JohnstonWells focused on getting the written materials prepared as early

as possible. The most important was a Q&A sheet that would attempt to

answer most employees' questions. But even that wasn't easy. 'They were

setting policy as we were writing,' Wells says.



While awaiting approval, PR practitioners rehearsed presentations with

the leaders of the proposed new company.



The Justice Department's approval came down on January 5. The

communications team sent out a voice-mail message to the 3,850

employees, explaining what had happened and that the company couldn't

comment further for 10 working days.



The merger became effective January 22. Employees were informed the day

before via posters, and e-mail and voice-mail messages about meetings

that would be held.



To help employees feel welcome, lobbies boasted balloons, food, a coffee

cart and flower arrangements. They were given chair massages, coffee

mugs with the new company's logo and informational kits. Further

information was available on a Web site (denvernewspaperagency.com).



For the first day, 12 20-minute meetings were scheduled with the three

employee sectors - production, business and editorial (an important

audience, even though the journalists weren't part of the new company) -

at each newspaper for both day and evening shifts.



Results



During the morning drive time, KOA, Denver's all-news station, began a

broadcast about the combination and speculated that numerous layoffs

would result. The station was called, and it corrected the story.



The campaign resulted in a smooth transition, despite the false radio

report. Employee reactions were low-key, according to Wells. Calls, and

e-mails to the employee hotline have been minimal. Ninety percent of the

calls were about parking. The remaining 10% were specific to the

employee.



According to the Denver Newspaper Agency, no employees have left their

jobs because of the arrangement.



Future



The Denver Newspaper Agency and JohnstonWells are finalists for this

campaign in the PRSA 2001 Silver Anvil Awards. Winners will be announced

June 14.



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