- Dan Hare, senior director, corporate communications, Conagra Brands
- Eric Schellhorn, director of internal and executive comms, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM)
- Brodie Bertrand, VP of communications and public affairs, Grainger
- Steven Restivo, VP, global comms, United Airlines
- Elizabeth Quenneville, senior director, enterprise internal communications, Walgreens
- Kristen Campos, VP, corporate affairs, Mars Food North America
- Kelly Jankowski, MD, corporate reputation, MSL
- Vickie Fite, head of internal communications, MSL
- Frank Washkuch, executive editor, PRWeek U.S., moderator
The topic of culture change has become front and center for C-suites as employee behavior continues to rapidly evolve. As a result, internal comms is more important than ever before. How a company communicates to its workforce and engages this key stakeholder group will be critical going forward. Yet, research from MSL found that one-third of employees are not engaging with internal communications.
During a recent roundtable discussion sponsored by PRWeek and MSL, a panel of top comms/marketing pros shared insights and strategies for improving employee comms.
Moderator Frank Washkuch, executive editor at PRWeek U.S., noted that conversations are now taking place between employees across platforms — a very different environment than the chats that once took place around the water cooler.
As a result, it pays to focus more attention on reaching employees through tailored programs rather than centralized channels. “Better internal comms help create a more transparent, engaged culture that inspires retention and drives corporate reputation from the inside out,” said Washkuch.
Kelly Jankowski, MD, corporate reputation at MSL, noted that internal comms is missing the mark with a significant percentage of employees and there is a big gap in how comms reach desk and deskless workers. “Desk workers are gathering more sources of information than ever to form their opinions of their own employer. Deskless workers tend to live more in echo chambers, and their primary source of information is actually a family member,” she said. “To connect directly with deskless workers requires arming direct managers to cascade information, building mobile channels and finding ways to intersect with the natural flow of a deskless worker’s day.”
To reach frontline team members, Walgreens recently launched an optional app. “We're trying to motivate them to download it with incentives. We find what’s local is important to team members, so with the app, we’re hoping to get more personalized content into their hands,” said Elizabeth Quenneville, senior director, enterprise internal communications at Walgreens.
Quenneville thinks adding information about the company’s investment in health equity and healthcare can boost morale within the company. “We've got a strong team member base that has a lot of pride in the company, but pandemic burnout is real for pharmacists, customer service associates and all frontline team members,” she said.
Mars Food North America used a rebrand of its Uncle Ben’s rice products to Ben’s Original as an opportunity to create a new purpose for the brand with commitments and local actions to support underserved communities. “Greenville, Mississippi, where we've produced Uncle Ben’s rice for nearly 45 years, is in the heart of the Delta Region, and we are now investing $2.5 million to improve education and food access in the area. We also partnered with the National Urban League to create our Seat at the Table scholarship for Black students who aspire to build careers in food-related industries get education and mentorship opportunities they deserve,” said Kristen Campos, VP, corporate affairs at Mars. “These actions continue to drive a lot of pride among our associates.”
Top row (left to right): Dan Hare, Eric Schellhorn, Brodie Bertrand, Steven Restivo. Bottom row (left to right): Elizabeth Quenneville, Kristen Campos, Kelly Jankowski, Vickie Fine.
When industrial distributor Grainger rolled out its own app for deskless workers, it allowed local leaders to control some of the content. The comms team conducted training sessions for leaders at its distribution facilities to encourage support and highlight appropriate communication. Comms also audits content. So far, it’s been a success.
“We’re seeing early signs that they are engaging and viewing earnings data, safety and security information and DE&I content. It's helping to give control to local leaders to be the communicators,” said Brodie Bertrand, VP of communications and public affairs at Grainger.
Meeting employees where they are is critical to reaching the entire employee base. Washkuch noted the importance of reaching warehouse workers, sales staff or people on the field. “You have to be mindful and recognize that warehouse workers might not have the option to keep their phones on,” said Vickie Fite, head of internal communications at MSL.
Dan Hare, senior director, corporate communications at Conagra Brands, noted that time and priorities are often barriers to digital engagement for employees. “People have very busy lives and engaging with digital platforms is somewhat discretionary, so the content must be relevant and valuable,” he said.
Hare said Conagra often works with employee resource groups to communicate with employees. “ERGs [employee resource groups] have been critical for us. We’ll produce recorded interviews or have get-togethers to address a wide range of issues related to professional and personal lives so that employees have the resources they need,” he said. During COVID, employee resource groups addressed topics such as childcare issues, mental health and techniques for being effective working from home.
The Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) comms team used traditional postal mail to get COVID-related information to employees and their families during the pandemic. “It was shockingly effective. It managed to be a good reminder that traditional methods that most of us have jettisoned can have power,” said Eric Schellhorn, director of internal and executive comms.
When United Airlines overhauled its employee comms function, it focused on being open and direct with employees and making sure employees heard news first. That proved critical during the pandemic.
“We use multiple channels to try to meet people where they are. It's hard with a workforce that has so many different work environments to have a one size fits all approach,” said Steven Restivo, VP, global comms. “We have 80,000 people, most are unionized. The majority are on the front lines and never stopped going to work. Our intention was to make them feel like they were our most important audience.”
Restivo’s team uses an app, intranet and leader messages to keep employees informed. “Every morning, every employee gets United Daily, a newsletter with content that drives back to our intranet site,” he said. “It's become a staple in our communication, sort of a Cliff Notes version of what's happening in the airline.”
Going forward, a hybrid workplace will set new challenges on how companies communicate with employees. United created localized virtual watch parties around quarterly earnings reports. “We try to avoid setting these up as a one-time only event so if you can't tune in at a particular time, you missed it. Instead, we have a couple of ways to engage in the content,” said Restivo.
Campos said Microsoft Teams has been very effective for Mars Associate connections. “The level of associate interaction with one another and with senior leaders on Microsoft Teams in our town halls has been great and in many cases, has exceeded the level of interaction we would have seen in face to face forums,” she said
Hare said live streaming allows his team to broaden content. “We can bring in external speakers and experts in specific areas so people could hear from people outside the company. Employees can submit questions live and everyone can see their questions. It's a very open model,” he said.
Panelists warned that more communication isn’t always better.
“There's a general issue that there's too much communication going on, too many messages and too many initiatives,” said Schellhorn. “More communication equals more ambient noise. It's sometimes difficult to get the important stuff through.”
Comms teams at Grainger and Mars are focusing on curating stories from the field. “We’re finding those golden nuggets to recognize our associates for their efforts and achievements, especially during a time that is so stressful for everyone,” said Campos. “Telling their stories in a town hall or a newsletter can go a long way.”
Authentic internal comms have had a huge impact on employee pride. Restivo’s team built a comms channel around United CEO Scott Kirby’s style. Called “Straight from Scott,” it’s a series of four-to-six-minute videos of Kirby riffing on an airline issue. “It's not scripted, it's authentic,” said Restivo. “It freed us up to be super direct and honest across all our internal communications. Of course, sometimes our external teams have to manage how that lands publicly. And that’s OK. Because we’re not trying to hide the ball with our employees, we're just leaning into it.” Restivo said the authentic comms creates an opportunity for employees — and their friends and family — to be supportive and amplify content.
His team also often uses its employee communications as a substitute for a news release. “We don’t have to spin up an external version of what we're telling our employees, because our intention is to say the same thing — in the same way — internally and externally. It helps us be more efficient. And it also means we care less about leaks,” he said.
To keep comms authentic and meaningful, coaching frontline managers on how to deliver messages should be a key focus for comms. “The frontline manager is the person deskless workers see every single day. We have to help them deliver that message, make them feel invested, give them time to ask questions,” said Jankowski.
Campos stressed the importance of upskilling line managers and leaders. “When internal communications is cited as part of the reason people are leaving their jobs, it's more likely the way a message is delivered than the person behind the message. People want to have more direct and authentic conversations with their leaders — and not always learn about their company’s stance through a newsletter or intranet story,” she said.
Washkuch noted that departing employees often cite employee communications as a main reason for turnover and asked panelists how they are focusing on internal comms in the face of “the Great Resignation.”
Campos expects teams to place more stress on internal comms since “the caliber of talent and the strategic investment that's needed in internal communications is critical.”
“On a given day, I'm a video editor, a video producer, I'm writing copy, preparing presentations. There's a need for people to be well balanced and well-rounded communicators,” said Schellhorn.
Bertrand recommends investing more in listening. “Opinions change so quickly and the sources change,” he said. “We need a finger on the pulse of what is important to our internal stakeholders and bring those issues to the surface.”
“The employee/team member is our first audience,” said Quenneville. “If they don't feel like they're being brought along on the journey or they're not in the know, you lose that opportunity to build pride and ambassadorship.”