The steel processor puts an emphasis on internal efforts to help reach its overall goals
Worthington Industries has the kind of story many PR pros would love to tell. The global steel processing company was founded in 1955 by John H. McConnell, a World War II veteran who attended college on the GI Bill. Though Worthington went public in 1968, the McConnell family still remains heavily involved in the company, which is also an important fixture in the Columbus, OH, community where it has its headquarters. So, when Cathy Lyttle joined Worthington in 1998 as VP of corporate communications, not only was she excited about building a communications department from the ground up, but she was also eager to share the company's story with the outside world.
“I came here thinking I was going to set the world on fire telling a great media relations story,” she recalls. However, she soon discovered that Worthington's employees comprised an audience that was just as, if not more, important. And for a company with 8,000 employees in 11 countries and 68 locations, internal communications can present a bit of a challenge. Yet, Lyttle, along with her in-house team and AOR Fahlgren Mortine, has worked hard to ensure that all communications efforts are reaching employees in a way that is not only convenient, but also effective.
Lyttle says that Worthington's commitment to internal and external communications is tied to its business philosophy, which is based on The Golden Rule.
“Communications is part of the philosophy. It's not just the corporate communications department sending out an edict and saying ‘This is what you will communicate,'” she notes. “It's saying to our managers and the people that are running the facilities... ‘We must communicate, and we must make sure that we are talking to each other.' People are our most important asset. So you put things in place that make them understand that they are the most important asset.”
That philosophy is carried on by chairman and CEO John P. McConnell, son of Worthington's founder, who, Lyttle says, shows his dedication to the communications function in many ways. Perhaps the most telling is the fact that Lyttle reports directly to him.
“He's a champion of what we do, and that's important. Sometimes it's hard... to show the value [of communications],” she says. “I couldn't do my job if I wasn't part of the management group and have the capacity to know what's going on.”
Worthington's commitment to communications is part of a larger goal of providing value to shareholders. Because illness and injury in the workplace can impact productivity and shareholder value, Worthington, in 2001, revitalized its safety program. Then, in 2006, with the help of Fahlgren Mortine, it developed the company's existing safety initiatives into a program called Safe Works. As part of the program, the communications team created and distributed a Safe Works toolkit that included information for facility managers, talking points for daily pre-shift manager meetings, and a prompt to share best practices with company leadership and other facilities.
“They have an emphasis on face-to-face communications at all levels,” says Melissa Dykstra, VP at Fahlgren Mortine. “That just really helps their communications as a whole, because everything they're doing at a corporate level is reinforced on the plant floors.”
The program also includes annual awards given to the company plant with the least number of accidents. The first year resulted in a 20% decrease in the number of injuries and illnesses and a 44% reduction in the number of serious injuries, according to Lyttle.
“You can't walk into one of our facilities without wearing safety glasses and ear plugs – somebody will stop you,” Lyttle says. “Once you get people into the mindset that you can make a change, you can get everyone there.”
Going forward, Lyttle's team plans to continue the Safe Works program to eventually reach the company's goal of zero incidents at its plants. She is also concentrating on revamping its Intranet to be more valuable to employees all over the world.
“We have big goals to hit. You achieve those things because you've communicated well internally as well as externally, we know that,” she says. “And we feel a little bit like the target's on our back, and that's good.”
At a glance:
Company: Worthington Industries
Chairman, CEO: John P. McConnell
Headquarters: Columbus, OH
Annual revenue: About $3 billion
Key trade titles: American Metal Market, Metal Bulletin
PR team: Cathy Lyttle, VP of corporate communications; Sonya Higginbotham, director of corporate communications; Janna Stanford, corporate communications coordinator; Kim Bertino, executive assistant.
PR agency: Fahlgren Mortine