Hostess Brands comms leader talks strategy

As Twinkie-maker Hostess Brands goes out of business, communications director Erik Halvorson spoke with PRWeek about its communications strategy.

Hostess Brands, the maker of foods including Twinkies and Wonder Bread, said earlier this month that it will shut down its business after a nationwide workers strike crippled the company. Before its liquidation began, Hostess employed 18,500 people. Georgia-based baker Flowers Foods and Mexican bakery giant Grupo Bimbo have since been among those companies cited as potential buyers of Hostess' individual brands. 

Erik Halvorson, the company's communications chief, chatted with PRWeek to talk about its media and internal communications strategy during its standoff with employee unions and the liquidation process.

PRWeek: Hostess Brands CEO Gregory Rayburn has been vocal with the media about his company's situation, even before the liquidation process began. Why has that been part of your communications strategy?
Erik Halvorson: We have a lot of employees spread out around the country. We can reach them internally, but media can also be a good way to reach employees. It was a very important message and throughout the process we wanted to be consistent. Also, Hostess is a well-known company, so it's important for consumers who are passionate about the brands to understand what's going on. We have done our best to make sure people are aware about where we are in the process.

PRW: How has Hostess engaged employees throughout this process? (The [Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International] union, whose strike forced the company to go out of business, includes 5,600 Hostess employees out of 18,500.)
EH: Now that we've entered the liquidation phase, we've terminated most positions at this point, but leading up to it we communicated through management, postings at factories, and a number of other channels. We can't reach all employees through technology because employees are dispersed. We posted documents and letters at various locations to help them understand and explain what consequences of a strike would be. Most employees refrained from participating in that activity, but unfortunately a small group did.

PRW: How much has Hostess communicated with the union?
EH: Leading up to the strike, the Bakers Union did not respond to any of our attempts to communicate for at least several weeks. Now that we're at this point I'm not sure. [Hostess] did attempt mediation last week. That failed. The strike continued and we were forced to file for liquidation.

PRW: What communications lessons can you share from this experience?
EH: This is a unique situation in that external and internal communications are so closely aligned, and there is so much overlap. The lesson there is that there is not a distinction between external and internal communications. Your employees read what you say to the press, and anything you say to employees can appear in the press. It's very important to be consistent, honest, and straightforward. Although in this case the outcome wasn't positive, it was clear with employees what the consequences of a strike would be. What we told employees would happen did happen. At the end of the day, we can say we were straightforward, open, and clear with all parties involved.

PRW: Is there a future for Hostess' individual brands?
EH: We have a bidding and auction process going on, and we've received a flood of inquiries from interested parties in buying some brands. The company as a whole is unlikely to be sold but parts of it are. That is a very likely outcome, but time will tell.

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