When your actions don’t match your words (or brand or reputation)

28 January 2009

By Amanda Brewer, ABC

An example last week from TechCrunch that shows the continuing blurring of lines between internal and external barriers and HR issues.

In this post titled ”Why Google Employees Quit”, comments from an internal site set up by Google HR called Google Group were sent to the blog that provide an interesting – and potentially damaging – look at what it’s really like to work for the company.

If you’re like me, you know Google, use Google, remember something about the founders of Google and Google’s historic IPO run, but when it comes to picturing the Google culture…I sort of think of rollerblading in hallways and funky brainstorming rooms and people working in open spaces, collaborating, innovating, exchanging ideas – basically, what we advocate in terms of best practices in internal communications.

So it came as a bit of a jolt (also known as reality intruding) to read the comments posted by former (and disgruntled) Google employees, whose account of what it was like to work on the inside were about as far away as you could get from what I felt Google should be like. As a user of Google, I have an impression of them (based mostly the cool visual tricks they do with their logo whenever a holiday or important cultural event rolls around). “Neat!” I’d think. “What a cool company to work for!”

What can a company do when inside information that speaks to the fundamental culture of the place gets leaked outside, and we all get a peak at…let’s face it…the dirty little secrets that I’m sure Google wasn’t looking to share in the first place? The issues raised aren’t unique to Google,but they are serious. People complained about having to take pay cuts to go work there. About benefits packages that fell far short, and an incomprehensible preference for an exceedingly long hiring process. And worst of all – they complained about a failure to thrive in what should have been one of the most creative environments around. At least, that’s what they assumed they were signing up for. But the reality of their Google experience was vastly different that what they thought it would be.

My colleague Brendan Hodgson and I have been speaking at several conferences to raise awareness about the real and serious risks that exist to a company’s brand and reputation because of social media. We live in a world where employees can enhance or destroy the reputation of a company with a single blog post, video, comment or entry in a social network – whether intentional or not.

This isn’t to say that social media can’t provide tremendous communications opportunities for companies – they can and they do. But the risk is too great for companies to no longer have strategies in place to deal with the online assault to their brand and reputation.

Part of this issue is cultural – Google has a working environment that is at odds with what some people thought it should be. Fair enough. This happens. But when the barrier between internal communications and external communications get blurred and information crosses seamlessly between the two, there can be a net effect on the brand and reputation of the company. From an employee perspective, Google may want to consider addressing some of the issues raised, as it could affect recruitment (and certainly retention) down the road. As some food for thought, let me leave you with a quote from “Issara”:

 ”But for me, I felt that Google’s popular image did not match its actions in the work place, and that some of the things they did were not very “Googly.”


Hey, Gen Y hit the bricks, you’re fired!

15 January 2009

Most of us are familiar with the infamous boardroom scenes from the Apprentice in which Donald Trump and his hair inform a contestant that they’ve been fired. The way in which Trump delivers the news, by simply saying ‘you’re fired’,  is
done for maximum dramatic effect and has been lampooned by everyone
from Conan O’Brien to Saturday Night Live. However, with the bleak
economic outlook forecasted for 2009 and beyond the phrase, ‘you’re
fired’, is all too real for some who are hearing it more and more in
boardrooms around the world.  

The effects of the economic downturn are being felt by an unlikely group, Generation Y.
This cohort, loosely defined as those born between 1978-2000, is the
home to tens of millions around the world who are just getting started
in their careers. Often referred to as the Trophy Generation, because
everyone in this group is used to getting a trophy just for
participating, Gen Y has never been a part of such a negative economic
shift. This fact poses challenges for the employer who must explain to
their younger employees why they are being let go and what they think
the future holds. Communication is vital in this process. Employers,
regardless of whether they are in the midst of lay-offs, should be open
and share their personal experiences of economic downturns to younger
workers. There is definitely a way to do this without being
condescending or coming off as too, back in my day.’

To those who have been laid off, there is hope, as a job just opened up being the caretaker of the islands of the Great Barrier Reef.

The Power of the First Person: “I feel your pain.”

13 January 2009

the CEO of a major company sent a video message to his employees. He
was letting them know that he and his executive team were taking pay
cuts in an effort to weather the economic downturn.  He explained that they were doing it primarily to avoid layoffs and ensure the financial viability of the company.

was bad news. But he said it simply and he said it well. He stated very
early on; “I will be taking a 20 per cent pay cut.” I was struck by the
clarity of the message. I could put myself in the employees’ shoes and
imagine how they might be feeling: the CEO was hurting too.  He understands. He gets it.  

then went on to detail the executive team and salaried employees were
also taking pay reductions and that the company was embarking on a
series of cost cutting measures.

was reminded of the power of plain, personal language. As professional
communicators, we know the importance of plain language. It’s a refrain
we use over and over again.

Use fewer words. Avoid jargon.  Don’t use complicated words when simple ones will do.

Use the first person.

Many would say that Bill Clinton understood this well. Remember the “I feel your pain” message?

think in business and in government, we tend to avoid the first person.
But used well, in the right circumstances, it can make all the
difference. A first person message brings the receiver closer.  

It shows conviction and decisiveness. It takes responsibility.  

And – especially when it comes to bad news —  it can be hard to do. 

But sometimes the impact of plain language can be profound.  I felt it as I listened to the CEO.  

Easier said than done: building momentum

08 January 2009

By Amanda Brewer, ABC 

Happy new year to everyone…

There’s really nothing like the promise of a fresh start, or a clean slate, to build optimism. The classic “do over” that we all get as the calendar page turns to January. And as I return to blogging after a two-week hiatus, it struck me that what is important to sustain my craft here on these pages is the same thing that we counsel clients when we talk about the importance of sustaining great work: momentum.

Nothing can be worse than putting time and effort into building something only to walk away as soon as the launch happens. We point to that danger especially when it comes to M&A work, but it applies in dozens of other instances as well. We’ve probably all witnessed it. Some of us have probably been guilty of participating. Big, new, exciting programs launch, the president shows up to say a few words, we eat a sandwich or enter a contest and then…what was the name of that thing again? Remember? Where we were supposed to learn something…about something…

The sustainability of great work or launch of a program is paramount to its success. If those who showed up with great fanfare to promote a program at the onset walked away, then what incentive is there for employees to stick around and commit to it?

All this to say that when planning an announcement that requires a change of behaviour, equal consideration has to be given to how the momentum from the launch will carry through so that the necessary shift is supported. Without a doubt it requires the absolute buy-in of all senior management and it goes further than just walking the talk. Senior management needs to get middle management onside and they both need to be seen visibly demonstrating the changes they have asked their employees to make, and rewarding those that do.

Just something to think about the next time you are asked to plan a launch. Sure, the party is fun to organize, but when the lights come up and everyone’s gone home, how will you ensure that they all remember to do what you’ve asked them to do when they come to work? Spend some time thinking about how to carry forward with the excitement or interest that’s been generated. Use that good will and build on it. It would be a shame to waste the hard work.

Engage your audience – it works better than ignoring them

17 December 2008

By Amanda Brewer, ABC

The parking regulations were changed recently on my street, but no one bothered to notify the residents. The only way you’d find out is if you were home in the middle of the day and noticed the person climbing the poles to take the old signs down and put up the new ones, or if you happen to pass your free time reading parking signs.

The way I found out was by getting a ticket.

What left me flabbergasted was how the most basic act of communication could be neglected – how could someone make a change that impacts people without bothering to tell them about it? Which got me thinking…how do you counsel a company that doesn’t even know how to get out of the gate in the first place?

We talk alot here about our IDEA model: Involve, Demonstrate, Explain, Aware.  The model is all about choosing different engaging tactics depending on whether you need to make a high impact or low impact with your audience (on my end, I would have taken any impact!)

Different tactics allow you to either involve people in the process, demonstrate what success looks like, explain the change in a compelling way, or just make people aware. Having worked for a public broadcaster in the past, the line in the sand that I always drew was making sure than any change taking place within the organization was communciated to employees first so they didn’t find out about it from the media. Engage them, don’t ignore them (or worse, assume they won’t care – they will, and they’ll be angry you didn’t tell them).

Change communication is really about building blocks. Depending on the nature of the change, you might need to choose one set of tactics or several of them. You might start by building awareness for the need for the change, then involve people in determining the best course of action to take. The point is, you start somewhere.


A lesson that even Scrooge learned

15 December 2008

By Amanda Brewer, ABC

I spent yesterday afternoon at a church in the Beach with my godmother. A flyer had arrived on her doorstep advertising a reading of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol by a host of talented inviduals, like CBC’s Carol Off, Joe Cummings and Tom Allen; Peter Oundjian from the TSO; tenor Michael Brett; and noted actor R. H. Thomson. We were also treated to music from two harpists, and an oboist and violinist from Tafelmusik. My godmother thought I might like to accompany her. On a dreary Sunday afternoon right before the holidays, what’s not to like about an invitation like that?

As I sat back in my pew and listened to the story that I knew so well, I found myself laughing quietly at the stretch I’m about to make (yes, it’s a strech, I fully admit it, as I’m about to compare the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future to a key tenet in change & internal communications)…

 …you see, I was struck by how important it is to observe. To notice. To pay attention. Basically, how the power of observation can sometimes be the first clue that employees (like poor Bob Cratchit) may be unhappy or downright suffering.

The most important gift that the spectres in Dickens’ classic Christmas story gave to the miserly Scrooge was to show him what he had missed. To point out, in no uncertain terms, how miserable his employee was, thanks largely to his inability to take anyone else’s needs into consideration.

A timely lesson, because too often the temptation to put our heads down and adjust our blinders overcomes our ability to stop, watch and listen. Observing and questioning allows us to gather information, often adjusting our course of action, or our expectations, and then enables us to act in a way that will be productive, or beneficial, or just plain kind.

We often say that middle management plays a key role in communicating. Employees turn to their supervisors for information and to validate news that has been passed down from the C-Suite. In turn, supervisors with their ears to the ground can send the most valuable information back to the decision-makers because they will witness reactions and can evaluate how successfuly (or not) employees comprehend what has been told to or asked of them. This is a role that calls for large amounts of observation, but also being open to addressing issues as they arise.

Why do you think a key internal tactic for a CEO is the walk-around? It’s more than just allowing your presence to be felt in a department or on a floor, as smart executives also take the time to observe. Asking a question, then listening. Do this often enough and employees may start to think “hey, she really cares about how this affects me”. And hopefully, trust builds as does the employee’s commitment to their work and the company.

The interesting thing about change & internal communications is how inter-releated so many actions are. The relationships between companies, its leaders and employees are influenced by forces that are sometimes nebulous, often emotional and completely reactive. Companies aren’t going to get it right every time. And sometimes, business decisions will be made that will have direct impacts on employees…so better to at least have management attuned to the basics of watching and listening and questioning, because observing is part of two-way communication, part of the dialogue that should take place in every organization.

We’ll talk about the importance of that feedback loop some other time…



What employees need. Right here, right now.

11 December 2008

The headlines are everywhere.

really hit me this week while I was travelling: media reports on the
economy are everywhere, either detailing layoffs, retail closures (even
some iconic ones) or lower than expected earnings reports. Besides the
roller coaster political situation in Canada, it’s the hot topic in
elevators, cabs and lunch lines. It’s rather gloomy, and especially
jarring against all that holiday bling.

My name is Kellie Major and I work in change and internal communications in Ottawa.  This
is my first post (thanks Amanda for getting us going) and I want to
write about something I’ve been thinking about over the past few weeks
- what you can do and what you shouldn’t do right here, right now, to
help your employees and your company communicate better amidst  all of this “noise”. I have clients of all shapes and sizes and we’ve all been talking about it.

no secret that economic uncertainty can cause employees to be less
productive at work. They may be worried and preoccupied about their own
financial situation, uncertain about their jobs, their organizations
and their futures. It’s a lot to think about. 

those of us who work in employee communications, we also know how low
morale impacts customer service commitment and affects quality which
can ultimately damage a company’s reputation. That’s why in an economic
downturn, communicating with your employees is a priority, and not the
time to trim communications. Employees are already talking about the
economy, and so should companies.

budgets are budgets, and communications functions are feeling pressures
to address costs.  Companies may not need to increase budgets; they
just need to work smarter and find no cost and low cost ideas for
effective – and not necessarily expensive – employee communications.
Here are some to think about:

  • Use
    your leaders. They’re already on the payroll, so leverage them as much
    as you can. Employees want to hear from their leaders. But they need to
    be visible, genuine, honest and real.
  • Use your managers, but ensure they are prepared and equipped. Research says employees prefer to hear from them most.  But
    they’ll first need to understand their critical role in communications
    and will then need turn-key material and support to help them to do it.
  • Emphasize
    the positive. This is the best time to remind employees about your
    organization’s strengths: your strong culture, values, innovation and
    creativity, your health benefits, employee assistance program, menu of
    training opportunities, flexible work environment, your company’s great
  • Try
    to find every opportunity for two way communications. Employees will
    have questions, concerns, and issues to raise and will welcome the
    chance to share (and yes, maybe just vent.)  But they also will likely have some ideas to share.  If you engage them in finding solutions, they’ll feel heard and the company will get some help in finding solutions.
  • Be
    timely. Employees need to hear from you now. They are already feeling
    uncertain. If there’s something to say, especially if it’s not good
    news, don’t make it worse by waiting for the “right time”.  Employees will feel better after hearing from you. 
  • Clarity
    is paramount. Speak and communicate like a regular person. As Amanda
    said, it’s especially important to avoid jargon and “management speak”.
  • Don’t sugar coat.  Don’t be afraid of candor.  It builds trust with employees.  It’s ok to say you don’t know all the answers now, but follow up as soon as you do. And then keep following up.
  • Look
    to digital communications and social media. Now is the perfect time to
    try it. It’s inexpensive, quick, direct to employees and builds

One last challenge just for all of us corporate communicators:  Now
might be a good time to give some careful thought to your employee
audience, especially if you haven’t for a long time, to figure out how
they are segmented and their preferences. Over the past decade of
growth, perhaps your employee base has changed so what was working for
one group may not be working for another. Targeting messages -
especially difficult ones – will really make the difference.

Thanks for reading. Look forward to your comments and ideas.

Kellie Major, Change and Internal Communications, Hill & Knowlton Canada

Let it snow (but not at the office)

10 December 2008

By Amanda Brewer, ABC

Colleagues in Ottawa are getting blanketed by snow (we here in Toronto seem to be using umbrellas one day, then shoveling the next). Made me think about the classic “snow job” that sometimes occurs in offices…and how clever employees are at knowing when it is happening to them.

What has never changed, despite the advancement of technologies, is the need for information. Inherently, people just know when something is up. Technology has just made access to networks that much faster and easier. Thanks to email, PINs, blogs, facebook, IM, whispered conversations in the washroom, and the myriad of other ways that people can either publicly or surrepticiously communicate with each other, information gets around…and around…and around. It always has, even when all you had to rely on was the age-old directive “pass it on!”

So on it goes. And guess what? If you aren’t providing people with the facts, they’ll make them up. Don’t feel like talking to employees? Don’t think they’ll notice a change in the mood at the office? Or that their supervisors are attending a high number of closed-door meetings? In the absence of proactive company dialogue, employees will trade what they know (which is often surprisingly close to the truth) with co-workers. We’ve all seen it happen before. Heck, we’ve all been part of it before.

When I talk about the need for transparency, it’s not to propose that everybody needs to know everything NOW. The right people need the right information at the right time. But there has to be a commitment in place that companies will not try to snow employees by ignoring their questions or obvious anxiety, or by trying to pretend that nothing is going on. Back I go to trust. Would you want to work for a company that doesn’t talk to you?

I don’t mean to exhaust this topic in one post. I will return to it again as the tip of the iceburg when it comes to trust and transparency and modes of communication is often the culture of a company (which alone is fodder for 1,000 more blog posts). The point I’m trying to make today is that employees are smart AND connected enough now to find out what’s going on if their bosses won’t tell them. And nothing undermines credibility faster than by not talking to the people who have a vested interest in the company they work for. Employees know times are tough. They know the economy is in trouble. So talk with them about it. Tell them what your plan is. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, no matter how tempting it is. But the first step is to open the lines of communication. Acknowledge. Sympathize. Answer questions. Provide guidance where you can. And for the record, there is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t have the answer to that question, but I promise to get back to you by Friday”.

As I said, this is just scratching the surface. I understand that the concepts are solid ones, but sometimes the execution is difficult. Not every CEO is a natural communicator. Not every manager feels comfortable answering hard questions. Fine…but start somewhere. Keep the snow outside, and just try asking people how they’re doing. Your job is not to solve all their problems…but it’s sometimes incredible what can happen when you take the time to talk.

"It’s the people, stupid"

09 December 2008

By Amanda Brewer, ABC

Thanks for all of the comments on the first blog post – they are being read with great interest and I look forward to the conversations that will be generated as ideas are exchanged. So…let me launch in to today’s thoughts.

The most significant impacts of the economic meltdown (US/Great Britain) and slowdown (for now, in Canada) will be felt by people who lose their jobs. The reality is that some companies will have no choice but to reduce headcount in order to position themselves to survive. What can be controlled is how the reductions happen.

Much is being written now about the way in which companies are informing staff that jobs are going. Leaked executive memos are being analyzed and experts are weighing in on whether or not emails are conveying enough empathy. I think each of us will gain first-hand knowledge owed to meetings that friends or family members are attending, and the rumour mill also does a great job at passing news on at warp speed.

The decision to let people go is based on business objectives. Recessions are not the only reason that this happens. Mergers and acquistions, changes in product offerings, the adoption of new technologies, the decision to outsource a particular function can all cause internal reorganizations. Change is constant! But what underlines all of this are a handful of important needs:

  • Sharing information frequently
  • Accessibility
  • Answering hard questions
  • Delivering on promises made
  • Showing appreciation
  • Demonstrating personal interest and concern

Interestingly, these needs are all part of what makes a great leader within an organization because they help to build trust. It goes without saying that organizations that have leaders who are trusted will weather the bad times with a workforce that is more committed and willing to work hard. And the smart leaders who have invested in a communications strategy that is based on dialogue and transparency will have to come to realize what we who provide this service already do: that it’s more than a feel-good exercise. 

If you get the conversations really right, you’ll have people who are proud to work for and belong to a company; understand what’s going on, and are passionate advocates for the brand. And that has a direct impact on the success of a business.

So back to the layoffs. I’ve already heard some stories that would make your heads spin. The truth is, there is no easy way to do it. Sure, there are maxims -  like: don’t do it on a Thursday or Friday. Don’t tell people by email that they’ve lost their job. There is a process that gets put into place, with executives and HR and outplacement agencies, for employees who are being let go. And the experts are right: cut the business jargon and speak plainly about the difficulty of the decision and how valued those who are leaving were to the company. And then turn your attention immediately to those who are left behind. These are the people you need to reach out to, to rally, to focus on the tasks ahead.

Leaked memos are great in terms of seeing the words a fellow corporate communications practitioner has used to communicate an intensely difficult chapter in a company’s history, but they don’t really show us what’s going on inside the organization. One can only hope that the supportive tone is indicative of a supportive culture too. As James Carville so pithily stated during Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, “it’s the economy, stupid” (and as commentators have been repeating over and over ever since), allow me to suggest a slight repositioning: “it’s the people, stupid!” Make the decisions you need to, but don’t forget the people!




We’re up to something…

08 December 2008

By Amanda Brewer, ABC

Was it really last month when I said I couldn’t ever see myself blogging? My, how time flies. But first, let me cover introductions. I’ve been with H&K’s Toronto office for two and half years as Director of Change & Internal Communications. We have a small but strong network of practitioners across the country and we talk all the time. We even talk with people in London, AsiaPac, Sydney, San Francisco and New York.  We’re keen to see best practices in use so what’s going on now will either be a little hair raising or inspiring for us, as the next year to 18 months will test the relationships between companies and their employees like never before.

So this blog is in response…to demonstrate the breadth and depth of the C&IC expertise in Canada, to look at best practices, to question, to support, to differ. To underline the value of a well thought out strategy. To show the links between social media and brand and reputation management. To emphasize that every employee now has the power to impact how a company is perceived.

Mine won’t be the only voice and I look to my colleagues in Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary to speak up, type away and share with you as well.

As for the title…perhaps a little too reminiscent of leg warmers and spandex from a decade or three ago, but the sentiment is all right by me. Because look around…the impact of the global economic chaos on workforces will be larger than any research will show us. Employees are the main assett in surviving a recession. Companies do not innovate, people do. Companies do not create a brand experience, people do. Companies may survive the recession that’s about to hit (or has hit, depending on where you are), but only because people made the right decisions. Keeping them focused on the tasks and the things they can control is key. So yes, we are up with people…because ensuring they are motivated and engaged is what we are all about.