Empowering employees: Strategies to unite support systems

Speakers revealed their increased commitment to internal comms during the pandemic, the call to respond to current events, as well as growing interconnectedness between comms and other departments.

L-R: Grainger’s Brodie Bertrand, Conagra Brands’ Katya Hantel, Hyatt Hotels Corporation’s Monique Pinnock and PRWeek’s Frank Washkuch

CHICAGO: The past few years, marked by a string of social crises, have forced executives to reassess their approach to internal communications and employee engagement, the focus of the sixth panel at PRWeek’s 2022 PRDecoded conference on Wednesday. 

Panelists collectively agreed that the pandemic has forced them lean further into internal comms. 

Brodie Bertrand, VP of comms and public affairs at Grainger, said COVID-19 “tripled” the company’s comms activities and prompted a discussion on combining internal and external comms into one unit. 

Katya Hantel, head of sustainability at Conagra Brands, spoke about how employees have started asking the company’s leadership to comment internally on current events, including the Black Lives Matter movement and mass shootings. 

She noted how, for a company founded in 1919, the call-to-action was surprising at first, a point Bertrand reiterated. 

“It wasn’t [historically] our style,” Hantel said, adding that Conagra had to learn how to balance messaging around staffers who were also not accustomed to managing social issues in the workplace. 

Hantel said Conagra remains specific in which problems it addresses, such as a contamination in a grocery store that may have affected some of its products. When the issue does not involve Conagra, the CPG holding company makes sure employees have the resources to voice their concerns, with platforms like resource groups. 

Bertrand said that Grainger launched an app, titled Firstup, to better reach and connect with the company’s in-the-field employees, which comprise two-thirds of the brand’s overall talent. Human resources leaders are also encouraged and able to post on the platform. 

Monique Pinnock, SVP of corporate HR and philanthropy at Hyatt Hotels Corporation, said that, as well as creating its own employee engagement app, the organization started releasing short-form videos starring CEO Mark Hoplamazian that served as a “quick hit,” sharing strategy updates and/or performance metrics. 

She said the concept helps employees connect with Hoplamazian and the brand in ways that were not possible before. 

“During the pandemic, there was an ever-increasing feeling of ‘we are one,'” Pinnock added. She also mentioned that Hyatt has increased its mental health resources in recent years. 

Hantel said that departments such as sustainability, IR and nutrition are now involved in comms meetings. “We've made a concerted effort to democratize internal comms,” she added.

Asked about lessons learned, Pinnock said it would have been impactful before the pandemic to better understand what workplace format employees preferred, as there was already “some flexibility” ongoing. 

Bertrand added that more orientation sessions on employee preferences at the peak of COVID-19 may have facilitated a smoother return-to-office experience. 

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