PR advisers to companies undergoing major change must now address the
feelings of remaining staff, says Chris Woodcock
A new beginning, re-branding, mission statements, a new vision. The PR
industry thrives on companies undergoing change. It allows us to indulge
in one of our greatest passions. We can unleash our creative juices and
our strategic communications insight in preparing a business for an
exciting future, a brave new world. It’s one of the fastest growing and
most challenging aspects of the business, so we need to get it right.
Looking to the future with such clients is all well and good, but it’s
not the whole story: perhaps it’s time we stopped to think again about
those people most affected by an organisation’s decision to change - its
Companies managing change consistently say that their fundamental
challenge is in changing individual employees’ behaviour. New research -
carried out by Grosvenor Career Services of Countrywide’s Reflex crisis
network - found that employees who have survived change may not look to
the future with as much optimism as many managers and their advisers
Companies have concentrated on looking after the more obvious casualties
of transition - those who no longer have a job. Now it’s time to widen
our definition of the term ‘casualty’: Grosvenor has discovered that
those ‘lucky’ people who have escaped redundancy, experience feelings
more similar to those of their less fortunate colleagues than we might
have suspected. They feel anxious and insecure and morale and motivation
are low. This is hardly the ideal atmosphere in which to launch a bright
Bombarded with new corporate messages, new branding and urged to ‘live’
the new company ethic, surviving staff are often left questioning the
worth of their previous working existence.
Take the case of a large UK company which was merged with a US-based
corporation. Streamlining through compulsory and voluntary redundancies,
and closure of some UK offices, was followed by the announcement of a
change of corporate identity.
Three weeks before ‘D-Day’, staff were issued with key rings, pens and
diaries. D-Day arrived and a massive banner welcomed them to the ‘first
day of the rest of their lives.’ Were they enthused by these positive
and exciting messages? Of course not. They felt devalued and worthless
and had little empathy with the new identity.
Yet this situation is typical: Grosvenor has discovered that 70 to 80
per cent of activities at times of change focus on the future and new
initiatives. This is what we are advising them to do. Instead, as
communicators we should acknowledge and build on the history of a
company, its staff and their contributions. We should emphasise that
good things from the past will not be lost.
People need time to get used to change. Companies and their PR advisers
acknowledge this difficult transition. Now they should recognise the
need to deal even more carefully with the feelings of employees. I am
not suggesting we wallow in past nostalgia. Messages need to be more
balanced and we must take more account of the sensitivities of a
potentially demoralised and uncertain audience.
The business success of our entire economy may increasingly depend on
Chris Woodcock is deputy managing director at Countrywide Communications