• Elizabeth Fishman, VP, strategic comms, Sesame Workshop
• Clarkson Hine, SVP, corporate comms and public affairs, Beam Suntory
• Jillian Hunt, senior manager, corporate comms and corporate responsibility, Ancestry
• Elizabeth Owen, VP, business performance and innovation comms, Levi Strauss & Co.
• Richard Wray, director, external comms, Rolls-Royce
• James Wright, global CEO, Red Havas and global chair, Havas PR Global Collective
• Moderator: Diana Bradley, associate news editor, PRWeek
Employees are a critical component to the formula stakeholders use to gauge a brand’s ESG and purpose performance. As a result, comms pros have assumed broader leadership roles to become more involved in employee matters. Panelists discussed how the function is evolving strategically, tactically and from a messaging standpoint to meet this mandate.
“The last couple of years have been a seminal time for businesses to reflect on who they were, where they were going and to get serious about delivering on their purpose,” said James Wright, global CEO of Red Havas and global chair of the Havas PR Global Collective.“Stakeholders, employees in particular, wanted and expected to see more because purpose is what you do, not what you say.”
Wright noted that with competition for talent intensifying, communication with employees has become more important than ever. “Comms needs to be capable of driving engagement that can be measured and improvements in morale that can be felt company wide. When employees know that they are heard, supported and trusted, success shines through every other facet of the business,” he said.
“Communications is culture, it’s no longer window dressing. People expect so much from their organizations,” said Elizabeth Fishman, VP, strategic comms, Sesame Workshop. While it can be a challenge for leaders, organizations and comms experts to deliver, she also sees opportunity.
Fishman said Sesame Workshop is a purpose and mission-driven organization, not an advocacy organization. “We don’t take sides in overtly political issues, because our mission is to reach the broadest possible audience of kids and families,” she said. But she noted that in some cases, Sesame feels it is important to use their platforms to communicate about important issues. “In November, Big Bird was vaccinated on television in a Sesame-CNN town hall. We then doubled down on social: we posted it on Twitter and had a beautiful outpouring. That was an example of something that felt on-brand and appropriate both internally and externally. I know for our employees who care deeply about this, it was a powerful message.”
At Levi Strauss & Co., a brand with a long history of taking a stand on important issues, Elizabeth Owen, VP, business performance and innovation comms, said the company has taken a very public and open stance on advocating for equality, speaking out on behalf of the HIV epidemic, the immigration ban, gun violence and reproductive rights.
“We're in a hyper-competitive talent market in the Bay Area. We’ve seen the rise of the power of employees. Employees tell us they come here for our brands and our values and that’s also what keeps them here. Even if we take a stand on something that someone doesn’t personally align with, they appreciate that we are using our voice for public good. We try to consistently act with our values and be responsive when we hear from employees about things that are top of mind for them,” she explained.
While the challenges of the pandemic were arduous for many, one participant shared that she has seen a leap in positioning for the function. “Shifting from being thought of as a service provider to a strategic thought partner to the business has been an advantage,” she said. “I report directly to the CEO, which is a positive shift. My CEO looks to me to have a pulse on the employee culture and provide counsel in that manner.”
Panelists discussed the efforts they’ve made to enhance employee engagement. Ancestry refreshed its corporate responsibility program two years ago. “The first step was a listening tour throughout the entire organization to hear what's top of mind for employees, leaders, stakeholders and the community to serve our community partners,” said Jillian Hunt, senior manager, corporate comms and corporate responsibility.
In addition to creating a framework for corporate responsibility and community impact, Hunt’s team focused on education to preserve at-risk history by making records related to critical historical events, such as the Holocaust or slavery and reconstruction, available for free. Ancestry also concentrated on supporting employees and the causes that they care about. “We found that a lot of our employees have causes they’re passionate about and we want to empower them to get involved and volunteer,” she said.
Clarkson Hine, SVP, corporate comms and public affairs, Beam Suntory, noted that during the pandemic, his company increased employee engagement when it introduced a new holistic, consumer-positive sustainability strategy. “It was inspiring to see how our people embraced this new strategy. Our people felt connected and cared for with surprise company holidays and personal care days,” he said.
At Rolls-Royce, Richard Wray, director of external comms, recently created employee-run investor tours of its jet engine factory in Derby. “They talked to the people who work there, who showed them the passion and excitement they have for what we produce. It was much more positive than a press release or a tweet,” he said.
While it’s clear that the comms function is expected to respond to employee concerns, deciding which concerns merit action isn’t always so clear cut. Panelists talked about how they access when initiative is required.
“There’s an expectation now that businesses and even CEOs have to take a point of view on almost everything,” said Wright. “Just because you operate in Texas and Florida, does that mean that you need to have a point of view on abortion? You've got to find your own purpose and seek out your own values as to whether you should engage meaningfully in these issues. These decisions have never been trickier and it’s never been more critical.”
Hunt’s team has created an emergency response matrix that helps assess physical safety and emotional well-being. For Ancestry contractors in Ukraine, providing time off and a stipend to relocate was the priority. After the murder of George Floyd, Ancestry provided open office hours for leaders to listen and talk with employees. “Communications is essential in providing that safe space in those difficult moments,” she said.
Panelists also discussed how the pandemic elevated employee health responsibility as an area of employer concern. “The pandemic lifted the lid on health equity and a lot of organizations added greater counseling services and opportunities for people to talk about some of the problems in the world. It's good we’re having these conversations, but we need to turn that recognition into results,” said Wright.
Owen said Levi Strauss adopted a paid family leave program and is more attuned to mental health resources. “That’s become more important throughout the pandemic as there have been increasing mental health strains. If we’re being very honest with ourselves, work wasn’t working. We had this culture of being always on. As we think about how to reimagine work, there’s a significant opportunity to put programs in place to support employees’ and their families’ mental health,” she said. “People want to work for companies where they have some degree of flexibility, where they can be their authentic self at work, from a diversity inclusion standpoint or from a ways-of-working standpoint.”
Hunt’s comms team led a campaign called Empowered at Home, and sent regular newsletters to employees to make them feel supported and connected while working remotely. “We needed to acknowledge that employees had a lot of different work environments at home,” she said.
Another participant shared that her company found the way to avoid overwhelming employees upon their return from vacation was to give the entire company the same Wellness Week off during the summer. The company also brought on a new mental health partner, focused on Mental Health Awareness Month programming and offered employees opportunities for volunteering.
For employees that lived alone, Ancestry launched coffee chats that matched employees so they could socialize virtually. The company also launched new mental health resources, including apps that offered counseling and meditation, and brought in a speaker on emotional resilience.