Communication begins at home

Staff must be the primary audience for communications- especially during times of crisis.

Staff must be the primary audience for communications- especially during times of crisis.

When torrential rains flooded parts of Juarez, Mexico, in August, hundreds of Honeywell employees suffered severe damage to their homes. Luckily, they didn't have to look too far for help. As it was during Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, as well as after 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami, the Honeywell Humanitarian Relief Fund (HHRF), part of the company's CSR division, Honeywell Hometown Solutions, was there to provide financial support to employees to help get them on the road to recovery.

Tom Buckmaster, VP of communications at Honeywell and president of Honeywell Hometown Solutions, says it was important for the company to prioritize the audiences and geographies that would matter most to its programming.

"At the end of the day, employees are the most critical element of doing our job every day for our customers," he says. "It makes sense to start with our employees and communities first."

And so within 72 hours of the flooding, a task force led by Home- town Solutions team specialist Jim O'Leary arrived in Juarez to assess the situation and interview staffers about their needs. The goal, says Buckmaster, is to get to the site ahead of other relief organizations.

"We want to make sure we can get our employees back up on their feet faster than anyone else," adds Michael Holland, director of Hometown Solutions.

Because of the city's modest communications infrastructure, the team relied on workplace communication to get the word to employees affected by the disaster - who were unable to make it to work - that the HHRF was beginning its work. Dispatching a team to Juarez also helped create a forum where the team could properly listen to and engage with employees.

"Clearly, we're sending a message. It's not a communications strategy," Buckmaster says. "We are coming down to connect with them and listen to them and find out where it hurts. It's all about effectiveness and impact and relevance to your employees."

As with previous disasters, Hometown Solutions worked to spread the word about its efforts to possible donors - other Honeywell employees - using a variety of communications tools, ranging from postings on the company's intranet to newsletters to in-person meetings. To date, it has raised almost $70,000 from 1,000 Honeywell employees. In addition, the company has donated $100,000. That money was initially used to give gift cards to affected employees to buy tarps and other materials to temporarily protect their homes. Hometown Solutions has since completely rebuilt 32 homes.

While the methods are rudimentary at times, employees are getting the message that Honeywell cares, something Buckmaster says they have shared in such forums as global town-hall meetings.

"We all know that connectivity with communities and employees is not about the quality or sophistication of the messaging or the attractiveness of the vehicle that delivers it," he says. "It's all about the integrity and credibility."

Crisis talks

Employee communications is an area that is rightly gaining prominence within corporations. But rarely is the discipline as essential as when a company is facing a crisis that involves moves that directly affect staff, such as restructurings.

When United Airlines restructured in 2003 after declaring bankruptcy, the company developed an unprecedented employee incentive plan and needed to communicate it properly. Working with internal communications specialist Gagen MacDonald, United decided to present the plan in a way that would connect it to the company's overall business goals in reliability, customer satisfaction, and financial operating earnings.

"We were obviously in a very difficult time for the corporation. Things were changing very quickly... and we were asking a lot of our employees," says Liz Roch, MD of internal communications at United. "Communication was critical in getting [employees] aligned with what we needed to accomplish."

Adrianne Rieck, strategic communications consultant at Gagen MacDonald, says the company decided to translate those business goals into observable behavior that employees could embrace as part of their everyday roles - without emphasizing the compensation aspect of the program.

The first step was to bring in key leadership from across the country, including a first-ever collaboration with the unions to discuss how to best communicate the program. The result was a variety of tools for managers to use in relaying the program to employees, including Q&As and sample work- sheets. It also set up an e-mail program where employees could send success stories about the correlation they were seeing between behavior and business goals. United claims the endeavor has been, and continues to be, a success.

Employee engagement

While efforts such as HHRF's benefit affected staff, the work impacts all Honeywell employees because of the morale it inspires.

"Because the events are so memorable, the programming is compelling," says Buckmaster. "We are creating a culture of empowerment, connectivity, and commitment, and a sense of 'one Honeywell' that's contagious."

The company regularly receives personal testimonials from staff who have been touched by the Fund's work. Buckmaster cites the example of Charlie Campbell, an aerospace employee in Louisiana who was helped by the company last year after Hurricane Katrina.
"He said, 'Honeywell has treated me so well. Everywhere I go, I wear my Honeywell hat. I want people to know I work for a great company,' " recounts Buckmaster.

And during a recent global town-hall meeting broadcast, which reached 85,000 employees, an Orange, TX, staffer who had been affected by Hurricane Rita used the forum as an opportunity to thank the company for its work on behalf of employees in that region.

Says Buckmaster, "That's a lot more credible, a lot more real, than me putting on my corporate communications hat on and telling people we care about them."

Web Exclusive

Maril MacDonald is the CEO of business strategy specialist Gagen MacDonald. She answered questions e-mailed to her by PRWeek's Erica Iacono about the important role internal communications can play when a company is in crisis.


PRWeek: Why is strong employee communications so important during a crisis?

Maril MacDonald: During a crisis, people crave leadership. And leadership is a responsibility - not a perk.
Leaders are people who create followers by providing a vision and confidence in the team or organization's ability to accomplish it. They provide a semblance of stability during chaos.

Without communications, leadership doesn't exist. Times of crisis create defining moments where we each decide who was there for us when we needed them most - and for whom we'll reciprocate.

PRWeek: What are some tips for effective communications during a crisis?

MacDonald: It's important to remember that you're in a relationship - not just disseminating information. Ease people's fears where you can but don't say it's OK if it's not. Say what you know, what you don't know, and how you'll keep people informed.

Be empathetic and human, versus mechanistic. And think through what you want people to know, to feel, and to do so that you can tailor your communications accordingly.

Look for things to tie back to that are stable, such as your values. Other possibilities include your business model, strong customer relationships, and/or a strong financial model.

PRWeek: What are some common employee communications mistakes companies make during a crisis?

MacDonald: The most common mistake is to let fear override common sense. I see good companies do really bad things because of fear. One example is having long-term, loyal employees escorted out of the building during lay-offs.

Another mistake is to listen too much to the lawyers. The best way to kill any relationship is to manage it like a legal process. We really do know better. We were all taught The Golden Rule in grade school - not in a legal briefing. I believe companies most often get sued because someone genuinely felt they were wronged, not because they found a chink in the communications armor.

PRWeek: What measures can a company take in advance to ensure smooth and effective employee communications will happen during a crisis?

MacDonald: The companies that are most effective during a crisis are those that go into it with a previously established discipline of philosophy and logistics.

Philosophically, know who you are and what you stand for as an organization. Work to gain alignment on communications guiding principles, on the relationship you desire to have with your employees, and on the role and responsibility of leadership. It's nearly impossible to negotiate these things in the heat of the moment.

Logistically, make sure you have effective processes in place to quickly reach all employees should a crisis occur. Can you find them? And do they know how to reach you? For example, although not a perfect solution, many companies have dark Web sites and 800 numbers that go live when needed.

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