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You know you have to act - now what?

By David McCullagh
| www.cos-mag.com

Even if you’re not planning critical changes to your staffing,compensation, or benefits to meet tough economic challenges, the mediacertainly is keeping the anxiety levels high for your employees.They’re aware of bad-news currents in every industry, every day, andthey’re worried. Keeping them focused on the job and maintaining goodmorale during times of crisis is going to make the greatest demandsever on your communications efforts.

And yet, according to a recent Learning Trends “Economic Anxiety in the Workplace” poll, managers seem to be hunkering down and staying out of sight instead of tackling their employees’ questions and concerns head-on. According to the poll, only 21 per cent said that there had been "briefings by leadership on the organization's economic health"; only 13 per cent said that managers had had "conversations with employees on economic anxiety"; and a meager 7 per cent responded that their organizations had held "workshops/briefings on dealing with [personal and retirement-plan investment] management."

It’s easy to see why managers would rather keep their heads down. They don’t have answers. They don’t know where to find answers. They want to avoid unpleasant conversations and confrontations. And they probably worry that they don’t have the skills and tools needed to be effective and credible.

"Corporate credibility has never been lower," says James Hoggan, a Vancouver public relations veteran (www.hoggan.com). "Multi-millionaire Wall Street CEOs, whose out-of-control mortgage businesses have undermined markets and economies around the world, insisted their companies were healthy only days before their collapse. Whether they were incompetent or dishonest, their actions have shattered public trust in private institutions."

In the end, very few corporations are out of control, incompetent, or dishonest. But CEOs everywhere are facing tough issues that do affect their employees, with the risk of preventable productivity losses.

Tough issues include organizational changes, benefits costs and cutbacks, and short-circuiting the rumour mill. They all have the power to frighten and intimidate your employees, scuttle their morale, and make it harder for them to hear and believe your messages, especially if those messages contain platitudes and empty rhetoric. Employers have to be able to help their workforce not only understand the issues, but accept that their organization is making the right choices, and not just reacting in a panic.

When dealing with organizational change – layoffs, cutbacks, even whole plant closures – leaders need to be open about the situation and the need for the company’s actions. By devising a communication strategy to deal with the specific issue and develop key messages, delivered through the best channels and without delay, leaders are in a better position to gain the trust of their employees and to help deal with the fear that always sets in right after a restructuring.

In some cases, reductions in staffing can be handled through programs like voluntary retirement packages, or by encouraging those close to 65 to consider retiring. But it’s doubtful that many of these employees feel confident about retiring. The right combination of incentives and planning information can help build that confidence, and again, that’s a communications role.

When the company’s pension and benefits programs come under cost pressures, they need to be reviewed and often need adjusting. Whether benefits are scaled back or restructured, employees will see the change as yet another attack on their security. Leaders with a communications strategy that recognizes that reaction, plans its messages and delivery effectively, and makes clear the reasons for – and how employees will benefit from – changes to the programs are in a better position to keep employees on-side with the changes.

But the real key to making these communications work is in who delivers the messages. For the most part, employees look to their immediate supervisor for clear, credible information. Organizations recognize this, and are asking managers to take on a bigger share of the communications responsibility. The problem is that too few of them give managers the tools and training they need to be successful at getting key messages across.

Yet training managers to communicate effectively in critical times is an investment companies really can’t forego. They need to know what the consistent corporate message has to be. They need the insight to know how effective communications pays off in job performance, and they need to understand the key elements of the company’s strategy to deal with a tough economy. Some managers may need help in improving their speaking and listening skills, and to learn some of the most effective ways to deliver the messages that the CEO expects them to deliver.

There are many resources available to organizations with critical communications needs – from self-help books to full-blown PR manuals, and from informal blogs to professional consultants – and no one resource should be overlooked. The more you look into it, the better you’ll be able to evaluate how to proceed.

But proceed you must. As Hoggan says, “Reputable companies all follow [the same] path:

1. They do the right thing.

2. They are seen to be doing the right thing.

3. They don't get #1 and #2 mixed up.

That is, they don't treat the crisis simply as a public relations problem. Nor do they assume people will automatically understand or believe that they have done the right thing. Hard times usually offer an opportunity for struggling businesses to display their true character. This is the way to ensure that opportunity works in your favour.”


David McCullagh is a senior communications consultant for Buck Consultants Limited. Contact David at  david.mccullagh@buckconsultants.com, or visit www.acsbuckcanada.com.  

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