Companies ramp up internal comms efforts

In the current financial environment, companies are employing internal efforts that engage staffers and tie back to business goals.

In the current financial environment, companies are employing internal comms efforts that engage staffers and tie back to business goals.

When Canada's Molson Inc. and Colorado's Adolph Coors Company merged in February 2005 to become Molson Coors, it brought 350-plus years of beer-brewing experience together under one roof. Transforming two historic companies into one successful business unit would indeed be a challenging endeavor.

“When you put two companies like that together, you have a big challenge in deciding who you're going to be and what identity you'll take on,” says Dan Lewis, chief public affairs officer at Molson Coors. “You have to be something new and it takes a while to get people comfortable with that.”

Today, drinkers of the company's beers, which include brands such as Coors Light, Carling, and Blue Moon, might not give much thought to the company's long history and its more recent efforts to forge a new, united corporate identity.

But in January 2009, after a year of development, Molson Coors launched an internal communications program called “Our Brew.” Lewis says the program seeks to clearly define who the company is, share that vision with its employees, and harness the results into a business driver that will propel it into the top four of the world's brewers – Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI), SABMiller, Heineken, and Carlsburg, respectively.

Our Brew is intended to inspire and engage employees. To accomplish business results, Molson Coors has set four goals to achieve along the way – double the growth rate on strategic brands, double net profit, and become a leader in both employee engagement and corporate responsibility.

“We launched [Our Brew] at this time knowing there were some big challenges in the market and our industry,” says Lewis. “Even though consumers are spending less, they are staying loyal to their brands, at least in beer.”

The recession has prompted cutbacks and PR program postponements across industries. However, even with the US economy in the throes of a downturn, large consumer companies are executing internal communications programs that enhance employee engagement. Many communicators, in fact, argue that the recession is actually one of the reasons to execute a strong internal communications initiative.

Not only does it maintain or increase transparency between staff members and company leaders, but it can help the company reach bottom-line business targets.

“Molson Coors is a very large company, but we're not as big as our chief competitors,” says Lewis. The company's full-year net revenue in 2008 was $4.8 billion. And in 2007, Molson Coors and SAB Miller, whose brands include Miller Genuine Draft and Peroni, announced a joint venture that merged their US and Puerto Rico operations.

In order to make it into the top four, he adds, Molson Coors has to “leapfrog our next largest competitor,” Carlsburg. “That means we would have to double our size in the next three years,” notes Lewis.

Staffers play leading role

Molson Coors employees will play a significant role in the company's efforts to rise on the list.

“If you want your people to make a difference, to be brand champions, to be innovative and creative, and to deliver results that are well above what your competition is able to deliver despite their larger size, you need a plan for getting your people engaged,” Lewis continues.

Executives have been playing a key role in introducing and educating staffers about the effort and all employees can ultimately participate in the conversation. Ultimately, the program aims to bring every employee into the fold.

Between April and June 2008, the company enlisted 36 employees – “clue hunters” – to gather information from other staffers, including the kind of company they wanted to work for, what motivated them, and what they would improve. The core “Our Brew” team, which included a cross-section of groups, such as the communications department, business strategy team, and Molson Coors' PR partner Inside Edge, narrowed down the 3,000 responses they received to a few dozen. Ultimately, an employee focus group helped to brainstorm the ideas that became the key attributes that comprise Our Brew. Attributes and behaviors include “challenge the expected” and “take personal accountability for your work.”

The company launched an Intranet site dedicated to the campaign, Our Brew Board, that includes the Brew Blog and the Our Brew Story Board, where employees submit stories that illustrate how Our Brew is being put to action. In July, the company began using Yammer, an internal Twitter-like platform where employees can discuss issues, create interest groups, provide links, photos, and more.

The Our Brew initiative is not only transforming how Molson Coors communicates, but the actual message. The company has adopted a jargon-free language, called Pub Talk Approved, which is being applied to everything, including HR policies and compliance manuals.

“It forces you to figure out the clearest, most direct way of communicating with each other,” says Lewis.

So far, Lewis says the results demonstrate success. In June, a survey showed that almost “90% of employees felt that senior management not only did a good job introducing Our Brew to them, but that they modeled the behaviors in Our Brew.” In addition, 70% of respondents “felt they understood Our Brew and could have an impact.” And in the first 30 days, 10% of the staff, 1,000 people including senior management, signed up for Yammer.

Our Brew has been introduced to the salaried workforce, about 30% of all workers. The company began the process of introducing the initiative to hourly workers in August.

“A lot of times in companies that have both salaried and hourly workers, there is a great divide,” says Lewis. “You can't allow that divide to remain or to grow. This is going to be the real test of Pub Talk Approved. If I can convince somebody in brewing or on the bottling line that this makes a lot of sense, then this thing will live.”

Reaching every employee
Managing engagement needs of a variety of constituents is both the impetus and challenge of some current internal communications programs. For example, internal efforts at American Airlines (AA) must address the needs of a workforce that, in many cases, isn't on a staff computer system.

“The vast majority of our employees don't sit in front of a computer and they don't have company e-mail,” says Susan Gordon, MD of employee and labor communications for AA. Gordon is also president and group publisher of AA Publishing. Weber Shandwick is the company's AOR.

Companywide, there is an intranet, Jetnet, which features a daily electronic newsletter. It is the “backbone of our infrastructure,” according to Gordon. The company also prints the newsletters in order to post them on bulletin boards, while an informational video plays in common areas where workers from different areas gather.

A quarterly newsletter and letter from the CEO is also sent to employees' homes. “Frontline communicators,” department-specific communicators that focus on a work group, help with outreach. For example, flight attendants now get information on the backs of the sheets that inform them of food provisions available on their flights.

In February 2008, the company also launched the Customer Experience Blog, which addresses customer service issues. AA will post articles on a topic and employees can comment and offer suggestions. Comments are moderated, but very few are rejected, says Gordon. Between January and July 2009, the blog has generated about 99,000 visits with 22 articles, while comments are slowly climbing.

“We're a pretty conservative company,” she says. “We went through an effort to help our leadership understand what was going on in the blogosphere and where we saw potential to bring some of that conversation in-house.”

As fuel prices skyrocketed and the economy hit the current recession, AA has turned to employees for suggestions to save on fuel costs through its Fuel Smart program. These ideas have saved the company “millions of dollars each year,” explains Gordon, adding that keeping open lines of communication with its unions, particularly at a time when there are nine open contracts, is critical.

“That makes business education for us all the more important because we are at a competitive disadvantage in that the other carriers in the industry operate at lower labor costs,” she says. “It's a continual process to help people understand why it's so important that we improve some of our cost structures and work rules to make sure we can continue to provide long-term job security and career growth for all employees.”

Internal and external teamwork
Internal communications efforts are often interwoven with external efforts. Kraft Foods is in the final year of a three-year turnaround that started when chairman and CEO Irene Rosenfeld rejoined the company in 2007. The ultimate goal of the turnaround is to bring the company back to levels of sustainable and profitable growth.

In February, Kraft launched its “Make Today Delicious” rebranding effort, an internal and external program that gives voice to the company's values and purpose. Among the companies values are: “We act like owners”; “We are open and inclusive”; and “We tell it like it is.”

“Employees need to be focused in a common direction, in this case, looking for ways to grow the business in the long-term while making sure costs are in line,” says Sally Maier, senior director of corporate employee and online communications in corporate affairs at the company.

Also in February, Kraft relaunched its Intranet to include The Mix, social media capabilities that include blogs, discussion boards, wikis, and an online Q&A forum where employees can post anonymous questions for executives.

“What we've seen grow over time is the social media component, which takes what many employees are using in their day-to-day outside of the company and bringing some of those channels within the company,” says Maier.

Kraft also wanted to use a different communications tone and style. Working with its PR firm Inside Edge, the company sought out a tone that was “more friendly, fresh, and more conversational,” she adds.

The tone and style may be friendlier, but the goal is to get all staffers activated toward the objectives set out three years ago. For example, notes Maier, the discussion boards have provided a place for the R&D group to talk with global colleagues about how to tackle a challenge.

“It's proving a direct tactical business benefit to having these conversations online,” she says.

Moreover, for Maier and the other corporate communicators engaging with their workforce, the conversations happening within companies are giving all staffers a sense that they share in the ownership of the organizations.

“It's important to make sure employees are engaged and contributing to the success of the business,” says Maier. “We need people thinking and acting like, ‘If this were my company and if I controlled everything, would I act this way?' It's more than a mindset; it's how does that translate into the actions they take in the day-to-day business?”

The new rules of internal communications
Integrate social media. Employees are using social media when they are off the clock, so bring those channels into the employee communications infrastructure

Make it about engagement. Internal communications is not just telling employees what's going on. There should be discussion, conversation, questions, and answers

Tie it to the business. Just like other communications efforts, internal comms should be working toward business goals

Speak plainly. Taking a conversational tone and style, and doing away with confusing and vacuous jargon, is a way to connect with employees across the spectrum of the workforce

Include the entire staff roster. For many companies, the list of employees is not just the people in the e-mail address book. Those who are out in the field are valuable parts of the business and should be included in the discussion

In print, the title of this story appears as "Inner dialogue."

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