Closing the Gap: From the inside out

Keeping internal and external messages in sync is critical to maintaining satisfaction among company employees

Keeping internal and external messages in sync is critical to maintaining satisfaction among company employees

Providing timely and accurate information to employees, and ensuring that internal messaging is in sync with the news that is being released to external audiences, is critical if companies are to have a strong and supportive workforce. Yet many firms still are risking their reputations by relying on the human resources department - whose expertise typically is geared more toward constructing benefit packages than communication strategies - to be their mouthpiece for workers. "The key to success for a company is employee satisfaction," says Al Maag, chief communications offer for Avnet, a Phoenix-based distributor of electronics systems. "Unhappy workers will never make the customers happy. So organizations need to communicate with workers first in a fair and balanced manner. The worst situation is to have employees first learn what is happening within their company by reading the newspaper." Closing the gap between internal and external communications - so that PR pros with the expertise to present messages to multiple audiences are involved in both areas - is paramount for reducing the prospect of employee strife. In good times and bad Because a company's employees are among the strongest ambassadors of its brand, it is imperative that they are kept current with the firm's initiatives, including product developments and the launch of new services, says Ted Birkhahn, partner and senior director at Peppercom. "Organizations that don't keep workers in touch with where the companies are going will miss a huge opportunity to have their employees talk positively with external audiences, including family, friends, associates, partners, and vendors," he says. Indeed, David Verbraska, GM of corporate communications for New York-based Pfizer, says staffers who are not kept informed can become disgruntled and discourage other people from working at their company. "Executives often say employees are their top asset, but the resources in terms of communicating to employees doesn't always follow that logic, and the gulf between internal and external communications then becomes pretty clear," he notes. "Employees wear many hats - they're stockholders, recruiters, customers, and members of the community. They can talk a company up and down with neighbors and on the internet, and can hurt the organization's reputation." Integrating external and internal communications also better enables companies to send consistent messages to all audiences - such as employees, shareholders, and the media - in a timely manner. Releasing negative information to the media, such as planned layoffs, before workers are informed can easily sour all employees on their organization, including the individuals management wants to keep, says Bill Heyman, president and CEO of Heyman Associates, a New York-based search firm specializing in corporate communications, public affairs, and investor relations. "Companies that are letting some people go for sound fiscal reasons still have to communicate to the other workers that they are great organizations and that the employees can trust their careers with the firms," he notes. "The old employee mentality was 'If I didn't lose my job, I'll stay.' Now it often is 'Let me get out of here.' Firms need to maintain their reputations and be sophisticated in doing so." And that typically requires having communications professionals involved with all messaging. A company's PR department - which is cognizant of the importance of distributing information quickly and accurately - and not human resources, should be responsible for disseminating data to employees, Birkhahn notes. Using communications professionals to reach internal and external audiences also helps to ensure that employers are kept aware of the positive stories about their organization that are appearing in the media. Such information helps boost morale and provides salespeople with materials they can use to help attract new clients. Integrated efforts Integrating internal and external messaging also better enables management to swiftly provide to workers the company's version of an issue when negative information about the firm is being reported in the media. "It's important that companies work to control messages and not just let the media dictate the direction of a story and solely influence the employee audience," Birkhahn says. "But each piece of data presented by a company must be useful; otherwise, it just becomes spam." While the same communications principles apply when targeting internal and external audiences, the delivery methods and how the messages are crafted will vary based on the individual circumstances, he notes. "Employees are a fickle group, and companies have to look at them in terms of their concerns and problems and how they are feeling at the moment, and then develop a plan around addressing those situations," Birkhahn says. "It's important for communications personnel to put themselves in the shoes of the audience." The need for an integrated communications strategy to make companies more attractive to current and potential employees became apparent about five years ago during the period just prior to the dot-com bust when workers were leaving legacy firms in droves for startups, Heyman says. And with the economy again improving, employers that have been remiss in using communications to strengthen relations with workers again are starting to lose people, he notes. Overland Park, KS-based Applebee's International, the world's largest chain of casual dining restaurants, is among the corporations leveraging an integrated communications strategy for consistent messaging. Four of the organization's five PR staffers also handle internal communications, and the dual roles help to make the PR staffers' work more interesting while enhancing employee relations, notes Frank Ybarra, senior manager of communications for Applebee's. Applebee's combined the functions four years ago when it developed its corporate communications department. The team primarily transmits information to workers through an intranet portal, and also produces news releases, creates multimedia presentations, and writes speeches for external audiences. Meanwhile, Avnet works to supply a consistent message to its employees, shareholders, customers, and suppliers by having the senior leaders of the different departments meet regularly and trade notes, says Maag, whose units support corporate PR, community relations, and most internal communications. The 12 Avnet corporate communications staffers handle both internal and external messaging, and one works closely with human resources. Maag also routinely sends e-mails that inform managers of corporate developments. Having a single individual overseeing internal and external communications helps to eliminate the prospect that departments will "go native" and only consider their specific constituents in their messaging, notes Verbraska. "It is extremely beneficial to the communications effort when all sides share information," he notes. "The units must stay integrated so that what is said externally is reinforced internally. Many employees complain that their company will talk to the media or a Wall Street analyst before they address the workers. But it is the employees that should be the first informed about the big things happening in an organization." Working with...internal communications Though part of the same family, a company's internal and external communications efforts can sometimes operate in silos. Coordinating messages across stakeholders will maximize their effectiveness. Here are some ways to approach it: 1. Internal communications can sometimes be seen as the poor stepchild of media relations or other PR functions. Proving that is not the case is important for organizations that are attempting to align their messages and enlist employees as brand ambassadors. Hiring top-notch professionals to fill these roles, and involving them at the most senior strategic level within the communications group, will help achieve that goal. 2. Not all employees sit in front of computers all day, and PR teams must understand that some staffers will receive their corporate messages in different ways. If efforts such as e-mail newsletters are not reaching some people, then they might hear the news about their companies from the media, advertising, friends, or other methods. Effectively and appropriately reaching all employees in the most direct manner possible is the easiest way to make sure messages are aligned. 3. Enlisting senior management outside of PR is an important way to signal to the employees, and to external communications and other marketing disciplines, that internal PR is a vital function. And the education of senior managers on the benefits of an integrated strategy should be ongoing in order to reinforce the need for collaboration in corporate operating procedures, says David Verbraska, GM of corporate communications for Pfizer. "Management must understand that the internal audience could be even more important to a company than external for all the right business reasons, and there are consequences in not aligning the areas." 4. Alert employees of negative news stories that appear before they have to hear about them from their friends or family. Transparency about critical reports, along with detailed relating of the facts behind the story, is needed to build trust. 5. External PR efforts are often subject to content analysis and other measurement techniques. But internal communications efforts are not consistently benchmarked, and its practitioners are not always considered as accountable as their external counterparts. Finding ways to identify success and failure of internal communications programs will make everyone raise the bar higher.

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