Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Prepare for Crises By Communicating Ahead of Time

hiresCrises will happen. Most companies have a plan in place for communicating with the media, customers and the outside world, but what about inside the walls of the company?

Employees are a critical audience, even more so in times of crisis. Not only will the crisis likely impact them personally, but they will also become unofficial spokespeople for the company, whether you like it or not.

Prior planning is also no substitute for building a foundation of trust before you need it. If in the regular course of business, you can establish a consistent history of honest communication that treats employees with respect, then you’ll be way ahead of any potential crisis. That equity of trust can reduce stress throughout the ranks in a crisis, as well as help employees feel they’re being kept in the loop as usual.

At Tribe, we advise clients to establish a practice of having executive leadership regularly share company news with employees. Cascading news through managers is fine for everyday, operational news, but it’s important to have some communication directly from the C-level to the frontline.

We’re not talking about giving employees the secret formula for Coke. Have execs share major developments in the company, as well as cultural communications regarding the mission, vision and values. Get employees accustomed to hearing from the big cheese, before there’s some crisis to communicate.

Perhaps ironically, sharing bad news is even better in terms of building employee trust. If earnings are down, if a major customer is lost, or if you experience some other blow to business, resist the urge to remain silent. Develop the habit of sharing both the highs and the lows with employees; then they’ll know they can trust the company to give it to them straight, no matter what.

Interested in improving your executive communications with employees? Tribe can help.

Steve Baskin

The Predictive Nature of Change Communications

highway traffic on a lovely, sunny summer day. Cars are passing fast.

I love trying to predict when we’re going to get to the destination on a family trip. I figure out the distance. I estimate an average speed. I do the math on speed times and distance. Then I guess at how many rest areas or food stops we’ll have to make. I’m pretty good at it and amaze family and friends by guessing within a minute or two. I’m sure that makes me sound really, really cool.

What’s interesting about it to me is trying to make educated guesses given all of the possible variables. Traffic that no one expected. An extra bathroom stop. Thinking that the Starbucks is actually at the exit instead of a mile or two away. Of course, if something happens to slow the trip down, there’s always the option to speed things up a bit when we’re back on the highway. Or take the foot off the pedal if things are on schedule. The point is that by staying focused on the outcome, there are things we can do to help ensure that we get the proper result.

Change communications are very similar. When we’re working with a client on a change management project, we’re typically asked to make as educated a guess as is possible to determine what type of communication is going to elicit the desired outcome.

At Tribe we refer to this as Change Marketing. Our ability to get as close as is possible to the right communication strategy requires a great deal of discovery and immersion. Like the car trip, it’s about brainstorming over as many potential outcomes as we can imagine. Thinking through the purpose of the initiative. How the change might affect the lives of those involved. How the change affects the work environment. How the change aligns with the existing culture.

By the way, they call it change management, not change do-it-once-and-you’re-done. Change within organizations requires vision for where the organization is trying to go. And it requires time, effort and energy to make sure you actually get something done. Also, we call it Change Marketing, not change we-made-the-poster-so-we-must-be-done.

The answers may already exist, or we may have to go find them. But when we’re able to do our job at its highest level, we map out what is needed and work with our clients to the to the right result.

Tribe’s process typically involves conversations with leadership to understand the vision that supports the change. Focus groups with a diverse number of employees to get a picture of the existing mindset and to unearth obstacles that might be in the way. Employee surveys to quantify the direction of our thinking. By the way, these surveys can also serve as a baseline measurement for the initiative.

Good data plus intelligent planning equals better results. When you’re as educated as you can be about the trip you’re about to embark on, and you’ve thought through the potential detours along the way, you have a much better chance of knowing when and how you’ll get there.

Want some help with your change initiatives? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Cascading Communications: Give Managers Communications Tools

In many, if not most, large companies, communication from corporate is cascaded through direct managers. For instance, corporate will email managers the news, and then managers are expected to share that news with their people.

This is particularly common with non-desk employees, like those on the retail floor, in the distribution centers, the manufacturing facilities and out in the field. Since these employees rarely have company email addresses, corporate deems them nearly impossible to reach, except through their managers.

In Tribe’s research, employees have two concerns about communications that come through their managers. The first is timeliness, in that some managers will share with their team right away, others will eventually get around to it, and still others may never do it. Corporate often has no way of knowing whether the information has in fact been shared or not.

The other issue employees often cite is inconsistency of message. Human nature being what it is, each manager will filter the information through their own lens. Employees in our research often referenced the childhood game of Telephone, where a message is whispered from one person to the next to the next until what the last person in line hears bares little resemblance to the original message.

Tribe’s research also indicates that many direct managers may struggle with this process. In our most recent study, 53 percent wanted online tools to help them communicate with their teams more effectively. This could be a comprehensive online tool kit of PowerPoint presentations, email templates and videos. Or it could be as simple as providing a one-pager of talking points and maybe another page of FAQ.

Either way, these communication tools address several issues at once. They increase the likelihood that direct managers will indeed share corporate communications with their teams. They promote consistency of message. And they help both the direct managers and their direct reports feel supported and valued.

Of course, in most cases Tribe would also recommend some corporate communications that go directly to employees rather than through their managers. In our research, 72 percent said that hearing from their top management is important to them. And 84 percent said they currently receive “not enough” information from corporate.

Even with employees who don’t have company email addresses, direct communication from corporate is quite feasible. If you’d like to know more, just ask us. Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

3 Ways to Fumble When Communicating a Major Change

How does a company communicate a major change? In many cases, not well. Following are three sure-fire ways to get it wrong.

1. Don’t say anything at all until every single detail is final. This is an awesome idea if you want employees to feel insecure and uneasy. Especially if they somehow suspect change is afoot and begin to spread that suspicion via the grapevine.

2. Tell them what they want to hear. For instance, if there’s currently no plan for layoffs, go ahead and promise them that all their jobs are definitely safe and they don’t have a thing to worry about. If that changes, they probably won’t even remember the earlier communication.

3. If it’s bad news, don’t talk about it. If you don’t acknowledge that something has gone wrong, or that a difficult change is coming, then you can keep employees from knowing a thing about it.

What’s that? You prefer treating employees with respect? Then you might find the following tips more in keeping with your approach:

• Don’t patronize them by withholding negative news. They’d rather know what to expect than be left in the dark.

• Tell employees as much as you can as soon as you can. If aspects of the change are not yet decided, tell them that too.

• Don’t make the mistake of thinking employees get all their information about the company from the company. They have plenty of other sources, from the financial news to the local news and from social media to social connections.

Interested in change communications that are respectful to employees? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Managers Want Tools to Help Cascade Communications

Do you use direct managers as a communication channel for non-desk employees? The default method for reaching employees on the production line, in the distribution centers and on the sales floor is usually to depend on their managers to communicate what corporate communicated to them.

The thing is, few managers in these settings would consider themselves communications professionals. In Tribe’s national research on non-desk employees, managers said they’d like more communications support in the form of tools and training.

When it comes to communications tools, putting them online can be best. Of those who said they wanted additional materials, 57 percent responded in favor of using online materials. Comments of respondents included,  “Printed material tend to be a waste unless you are going through them line by line,” and “I prefer [supporting materials] to be online reports.”

Other quotes included: “I would like [supporting materials] to be online resources,” “I think [support materials] should be online,” and “[I would rather] have online resources!”

 Providing tools like talking points or FAQs can be particularly effective. In fact, they address one of the few faults that the 2012 respondents found with communications delivered through direct managers: inconsistency of message.

These tools can be simple. In fact, they should be. No need for tons of paragraphs or pages. Give them a one-pager with the overall key message and a few bullet points. Maybe offer suggested responses to questions employees might ask.

Interested in developing communications tools for your company’s managers? Tribe can help.

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

84% of Employees Say Change Management Communications Handled Poorly

In Tribe’s employee research, 84 percent feel that communications about major changes in their companies are handled poorly. If you’re interested in your employees falling into that 84 percent, here are three sure-fire ways to completely blow it with employees:

1. Don’t say anything at all until every single detail is final. This is an awesome idea if you want employees to feel insecure and uneasy. Especially if they somehow suspect change is afoot and begin to spread that suspicion via the grapevine.

2. Tell them what they want to hear. For instance, if there’s currently no plan for layoffs, go ahead and promise them that all their jobs are definitely safe and they don’t have a thing to worry about. If that changes, they probably won’t even remember the earlier communication.

3. If it’s bad news, don’t talk about it. If you don’t acknowledge that something has gone wrong, or that a difficult change is coming, then you can keep employees from knowing a thing about it.

What’s that? You prefer treating employees with respect? Then you might find the following tips more in keeping with your approach:

• Don’t patronize them by withholding negative news. They’d rather know what to expect than be left in the dark.

• Tell employees as much as you can as soon as you can. If aspects of the change are not yet decided, tell them that too.

• Don’t make the mistake of thinking employees get all their information about the company from the company. They have plenty of other sources, from the financial news to the local news and from social media to social connections.

Want some guidance in handling change communications? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Change Management: Avoid employee rumors by letting them know what’s really going on

 

Change Management: Avoid employee rumors by letting them know what’s really going on

Rumors are created to fill information voids. That’s number 17 of 21 “Internal Quotations for Internal Communications” included in a slideshare I stumbled across by Paul Barton of Phoenix, AZ. I don’t know Paul, but I like the way he thinks.

In fact most of the lines he quotes are things we say frequently at Tribe. Another of his slides, number 19, relates to the one above: “Employees should learn of important information affecting them and their organization from an internal source rather than an external source.” Number 18 as well: “In a crisis, internal communications is often the very thin thread that holds everyone and everything together.”

All three of these thoughts relate to the importance of being open and honest with employees during any major change. If you withhold information because you don’t want employees to know how bad it is, you can be fairly certain that what they’re imagining and telling each other is worse than the reality.

One of the best ways to destroy trust in your organization’s leadership is to share something big with the media, customers or shareholders before you tell employees. It’s easy to do unintentionally, especially when there’s time pressure to get out an announcement or press release to correlate with some major happening.

In fact, in Tribe’s research, that news needs to come from the top. In our national research with employees of large companies, major change was one of the few topics respondents said they strongly preferred hearing from company leadership rather than their direct managers.

This speaks to a measure of respect. In any major change or company crisis, beginning any internal communications from a place of respect for employees is the right place to start.

Does your company have a major change on the horizon? Tribe can help.

 

 

 

Stephen Burns

Time Warner Cable and the art of being upfront

time-warner-cable-change-hed-2016-1You may have seen Time Warner Cable’s new ad campaign about the company changing. “Changing for Good”, in fact. That’s the slogan. With access to more channels, newer technologies and a focus on customer service, there’s a sweeping effort coming from TWC, as well as Comcast, Charter and the other cable giants to show customers that cable companies are different now. Really and truly different.

Well, actually, they aren’t that different. Beside the new technology, which has updated consistently but glacially through the years, not much has really changed. They’ll still be late, but instead of a four-hour window of time for arrival, they give you a one-hour window. They’re 98.8% sure they can hit that. And they’ll send you a notification when they’re on the way. That seems to be it.

But there is a lot of merit in this particular campaign.  Sure, they aren’t making massive changes in policy, price or customer service — the important stuff. Regardless of (my) personal vendettas against the cable companies, one has to acknowledge the vast networks of employees, data and technology that these companies have to manage. Yes, I’m calling for sympathy for the much-maligned cable companies. Don’t shoot. They’re admitting that they’ve messed up. You may see the sentiment as “the least they could do,” communicating the fact that they have been terrible, but this is the first step. There may be real changes on the horizon. And as a customer they’re telling you one, very important thing: no matter the changes, they’ll be communicated to you.

Companies can take a lesson from the transparency demonstrated here. Change management is one of the toughest areas of internal communication. Even at the helm of the company, leaders may not know exactly how changes will unfold. You may feel like you can’t communicate unless you have all the answers. As a result, managers may not feel well informed about what’s happening, and employees will feel out of the loop. The truth of the matter is, no news does not mean good news in the corporate world. People need to know what’s happening, no matter what.

Hence, there is one cardinal rule in change management: communicate. So, you may not know what’s happening exactly. Tell employees everything you do know. Give your people a heads-up that there are certain possibilities on the horizon. What’s truly important is keeping everyone on the same page, and showing them that they can trust you to continue that communication. With that trust comes the confidence to weather the changes and even voice improvements and opinions as to how the changes can happen as smoothly as possible.

Want to find the best ways to communicate change with employees? Give Tribe a call. We’d love to help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

What Can Communications Professionals Do If Their Company Isn’t Already a “Chill Place?”

iStock_000088161219_skate“If your company  is a chill place, you won’t have to talk about it. It will be obvious the minute you walk in the door.” Could not agree more. The above is from Liz Ryan, author of a fantastic Forbes blog  titled “Please God, Can We Stop Talking About ‘Core Values?'”

“A lot of corporate and institutional weenies love to talk about Core Values, as though their organization’s values were somehow fundamentally different from every other organization’s values.” That’s another scathing but awesome line from her blog.

And this, perhaps, is my favorite bit: “I assume you lead your company with a human voice and choose trust over fear at every opportunity. If you do those things, you don’t need to stop and plumb the depths of your Core Values.” All of the above and more from her post is excellent advice for the CEO and his or her leadership team.

But what if you’re charged with communicating culture to employees in a company that isn’t totally chill? How can you help shift the culture towards what Ryan calls a “human place.”

The best thing you can do is to lead from where you are. Start your communications strategies from a place of respect for employees. Be the voice in the meeting that speaks up for being  honest with employees, even when it’s difficult. Put communication channels in place that give employees a way to share questions, concerns and comments — and then create systems for giving those employees a response. Advise your leadership to take the high road, even when that’s not what they want to hear.

While this is decidedly more difficult than working with a company that already has an enviable culture, it may have a more powerful impact on the world. As the bumper sticker version of Ghandi’s words says, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Want a partner in helping to shift the culture at your company? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Do discovery to determine the gap

Do you know the gap between what you want employees to know and feel and what they actually think and feel right now? As you’re developing a communications strategy for any major initiative, whether the topic to be communicated is a major change or the company vision or anything else, you need to understand their current point of view.

The typical engagement survey may not tell you how far away your current reality is from your desired reality. To understand that, you need to ask questions specific to the issue at hand, and to listen for the nuances of what employees are really saying.  For that you need more than quantifiable data. You need qualitative conversations.

Time consuming though it may be, focus groups and personal interviews can help you get at the back story. For instance, we once worked with a company that had recently hired a very charismatic and energizing CEO. He was fantastic, and all the survey data indicated that employees’ opinions of him were very high.

But over the course of a handful of focus groups with employees in a wide range of functions, seniority and geography, an interesting theme emerged. Yes, employees thought the new CEO was awesome and they supported the new vision he brought to the organization. Although there also seemed to be an undercurrent of stress, not about the changes he was making, but about their own workloads.

This seemed curious, especially since there had been no layoffs associated with the new CEOs tenure. People still had largely the same job responsibilities they had under the former CEO.

As we invited employees to speak to this undercurrent of stress we had noticed, we learned something we would never have uncovered through survey questions. For one thing, we wouldn’t have known to ask about it.

Employees were stressed because they couldn’t keep up with the CEO. This was a man who seemed to need little sleep, who was at work early and stayed late, who could move from town hall to public appearance to site visits without ever seeming to tire. Although he had no expectation of employees keeping the same kind of schedules, they assumed he did.

That’s something we could address in the communications strategy. It revealed the gap between what leadership wanted employees to think and feel and what they really were thinking and feeling. Knowledge of that gap provided an important perspective for developing communications related to the culture the new CEO wanted to create.

Interested in learning more about your communications gaps? Tribe can help.