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Posts Tagged ‘#strategy’

Where is your company today? Where do you foresee it being in the next year or in five years? One thing is for sure, organizations must constantly embrace change in order to survive and thrive in a fiercely competitive environment. And, the other thing we know for sure is that change is never easy. In fact, Fast Company magazine has devoted a number of articles to the mechanics of change saying, “significant organizational change is one of the most difficult strategies to implement.”

Here, we will focus on one critical piece of the mix, whether an organization is restructuring, merging or just shaking up the org chart – employee communications must be a priority. The one truth that should never be overlooked is that employees are an organization’s most critical audience and their reaction to change can make for smooth sailing or place the company’s very survival in jeopardy.  Employees not only keep operations running, they are brand ambassadors – representing the face of the organization to customers, vendors, the community and the media. Ensuring that employees understand and embrace the change and are prepared to deliver key messages to external audiences is an essential element of the process.

Internal communications during a time of change takes careful planning, regardless of the size of the organization. One mistake we see far too often is that senior management waits until there is a backlash and the gossip vine is running rampant before bringing in a communications professional. It’s smart to include a professional communications strategist at the very beginning of discussions, making him or her a part of the strategic team.

So, what value will a professional communications strategist bring to the transition process? Expect a series of steps that will include initial research, the development of a plan that outlines specific objectives, and careful implementation that allows for continuous feedback. The following steps can serve as a guideline for establishing an internal communications plan.

1.    Do the Research

The first, and arguably most important step is research. A strategist will need to know how internal communications are currently structured or if a communications program will need to be built from scratch. Are management and employees engaged in a two-way conversation? Will focus groups need to be convened? How will the planned changes impact employees, the community, and the longevity of the organization?

Internal audiences will need to be clearly defined, especially in large, complex organizations. Each group of employees may require different channels of communication (emails, small group meetings, etc.), and the changes may impact different groups in different ways.  Demographics must be considered. For example, people from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds may not fully understand the use of bankruptcy as a corporate strategy and become fearful that the organization is liquidating.

Managers’ communications skills will need to be evaluated and training provided as needed. Those on the front lines must be empathetic to employee fears and prepared to relieve anxieties.

Even senior management should be evaluated, as they will set the tone and provide inspiration for success. The strategist will want to consider every eventuality.

2.    Identify objectives, develop a plan and communicate often

Together with the strategy team, the communications professional will identify key objectives such as maintaining morale and productivity, retaining high-performing individuals, getting buy-in for the vision and establishing the credibility of new management.  Once objectives are agreed upon, the strategist will develop a plan and a timetable for implementation.

Employees deserve timely, frequent updates. They must be given the opportunity to express their concerns and know they are being heard. Knowing what to expect, even if it’s negative outcomes, will help relive anxiety and avoid wild speculation. Throughout the process, top executives will need to be visible and accessible.  Employees will respect management for providing explanations as soon as possible. Allowing employees to hear of the merger by radio on the ride home will cause distrust and anger. If things are not yet certain, tell them – they will appreciate the frankness.

Executives will need to be prepared to tell employees how the change will impact jobs and what the future holds. Tell a story – link business objectives and goals with strategies and values. Engage the employees and allow them to become a vital part of the process, to experience the changes and see the benefits. Communications strategies must engage, motivate and inspire management and employees.

Part of the planning process will include the selection of communications channels. Face-to-face meetings tend to be the most effective during times of change. These may include manager briefings, one-on-one meetings with with key personnel or in the case of multiple locations, a town hall style meeting with senior management appearing by video in all locations. Today’s technology allows these types of meetings to actively engage the audience and immediately capture employee reactions.

Ensure that employees have ample opportunity to make suggestions, ask questions and express concerns. Surveys, focus groups, employee hot-lines, suggestion boxes and open-door policies are just a few simple ways to encourage employees to engage in two-way conversation.  The key is to communicate often, let employees know how the merger is progressing and how their roles may change. Make employees feel as though they are part of the family, that the success of the business strategy is important to them.

When layoffs are unavoidable, let employees know as soon as possible. Use tact and be empathetic in the messaging. Treating employees with dignity will engender respect. Smoothing the transition by providing resources to employees who are leaving, including payouts and retraining, will create good will with those who remain. Avoid making promises as change is risky and circumstances can change.

Finally, be sure to thank employees for everything they are doing to ensure the success of the merger, restructure or management change.

3.    Evaluate consistently, listen to external conversations, and make adjustments as needed

Every communications program should include several measures so that the success or failure of tactics can be evaluated frequently as the plan progresses. Two-way conversations are an important tool for understanding if employees understand the business strategy and their roles.

As with most communication plans, the strategies and tactics for internal and external audiences will dovetail with one another. Monitoring external conversations is critical to tracking all the factors that shape employee perceptions. Social media can allow a rumor to go viral in a short period of time. Launching an internal social media platform in the communications mix might be a good way to encourage employee feedback and gauge reactions.  But don’t overlook the buzz on the outside – your employees are certainly hearing it. Mainstream media will need to be tracked so inaccuracies can be corrected and rumors dispelled. Community leaders will need to be engaged, as they will have concerns regarding the impact of large layoffs or the closing of local facilities, and their reactions will have an impact on employees.

Ultimately, organizations must communicate early and often, with total honesty during periods of change or risk severe damage to the credibility of the management team. Bringing in a communications strategist early in the game is good business strategy.

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You’re ready to hire a public relations firm and have worked through the exercises we suggested in the first two blog posts.  You’ve identified your objectives and have a good idea of what you need from a PR firm.  Now it’s time to find the right fit.

Size counts

There are many different types of firms out there – large multi-national organizations as well as free-lance PR consultants, and everything in between.  To help you narrow your search, we’re going to take a look at the pros and cons of working with different size firms.

Larger firms have many advantages – associates experienced in working within multi-cultural environments, large staffs available to expend concentrated energy in a short amount of time and in different locales, deep internal resources including industry-specific knowledge and experience, and ready access to graphic design and advertising professionals.

Mid-sized and small PR firms can either operate as generalists – applying the core principles of public relations theory to a variety of industries, or as boutique firms – specializing in specific industries or applying specific PR tactics such as publicity and promotion or crisis management.  Mostly regional in nature, some of these firms are aligned with a large multi-national firm, allowing them access to resources while also providing local contract services in areas where the large firm does not maintain offices.

Technology has spawned a new form of PR firm – those that work virtually.  These types of firms vary in size and structure, generally relying on building a network of PR professionals with specific skill sets to fill client needs.  Without the overhead costs associated with brick and mortar, many of these firms are in the position of providing exceptional services at a lower cost.  The very nature of their structure allows these firms to engage professionals in different regions of the country in order to better service client needs.

Generally, larger firms won’t consider taking on a client for less than $15,000 to $20,000 a month, but some have worked with smaller clients in recent years in order to weather the recession.  If your organization is smaller, you may want to restrict your search to small and midsize firms.

It’s all about building relationships

When you begin talking with PR folks, you want to look for someone who listens carefully and takes the time to understand your needs.  Look for curiosity – learning about a new company or industry or taking on a new challenge energizes some of the best PR pros.

Look beyond fancy offices and long impressive client lists.  Instead, find out how long the firm’s clients have maintained their relationships with their PR counsel.  Ask for references.  Effective PR is all about building relationships with your customers, your investors, your employees, the media and your community.  Are the people you’re talking to good at building relationships?

Red flags and ethical considerations

It’s important to know if the firm promotes ethical standards among its staff.  You won’t want someone representing your company who doesn’t abide by the PR industry code of ethics.  A simple way to assess this is by asking if managers are accredited or certified in the field of PR.  Do they support continued education and accreditation of junior staff?

Find out how your work will be staffed.  In many cases, once the contract is signed you may find that the people you met during the presentation phase take a big step back and your work is assigned to junior staff.  When this happens, you may find that you have to provide more guidance and oversight, which may defeat the whole purpose of hiring a PR firm in the first place.

Find out how the firm handles conflicts.  If they represent several companies in your industry, how do they determine which client gets the referral when a journalist asks for an expert opinion?

Make sure you understand the billing system.  Will you be billed by the hour?  Is there an alternative?  What about costs associated with media databases and news clipping services?  If you are placed on a retainer system, what exactly does the retainer cover?  Is your account manager experienced at managing a budget?  Be wary of discount pricing – you’ll only get what you pay for.

Are you being promised front-page coverage in the New York Times?  Do status reports provide clear information?  Are you finding yourself mentally correcting grammar or have you caught typos in the presentation materials?  Has the PR pro been a little lazy, quickly throwing together a plan that doesn’t address your objectives?

While no one firm is expected to be perfect, you can find the best fit for your company when you do your homework.


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Shuttle Endeavor being decommissioned in the Vehicle Assembly Building.

In a recent blog post, I mentioned attending a NASA Tweetup – a once-in-a-lifetime experience. While in awe of the event’s tours, special speakers, close-up view of the launch and behind the scenes access, the public relations professional in me couldn’t get over the fantastic strategy behind the event.

Imagine if you were told the most popular and well-known segment of your company would be shut down. It’s a preposterous business scenario for most, but with the shuttle program officially closed as of August 2011, it was a dark deadline surely looming over the heads of the NASA communications team.

On January 21, 2009 the first Tweetup launched – and with great success. So successful, that the most recent Mars Curiosity Tweetup was the 31st of its kind.

While astronauts aren’t currently launching into space at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA has found an innovative way to keep fans engaged and take a viral approach to cultivating new space fans when a less savvy organization could have quickly become lost and forgotten.

The results are astounding. NASA tracked 10,665 tweets originating from the 150 participants of the Juno spacecraft launch Tweetup to find the event yielded 29.9 million potential impressions. By many accounts, today’s Tweetups produce close to double the impressions of the Juno Tweetup.

With each Tweetup, the momentum behind NASA’s social media presence continues to snowball and more and more of the general population become engaged with the latest updates in space exploration. The Twitter handle @NASATweetup boasts 30,062 followers and @NASA ranks in at 1,636,046 followers. It doesn’t stop there, as the majority of NASA Tweetup participants continue to support and promote the space agency long after everyone returns home.

The masterminds over at NASA honed in on the inherent nature of social media – sharing information – and found a fruitful formula to spread messages across millions of Twitter accounts. Congratulations, this is one for the social media textbooks.

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