Talking Points

Talking Points| Human Resource Executive Online New economic realities and new technologies have joined forces to change the modes, messages and priorities of HR communications.

Sunday, November 1, 2009
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Now, the emphasis is on proactive, ongoing communication that doesn't wait for news -- either good or bad -- to happen.

For HR, Twitter and Facebook are just the beginning, as many forward-thinking human resource leaders are embracing a host of new technologies to reach out to employees and the public. But the real revolution in HR communications these days goes much deeper than an ever-expanding host of tools.

At a growing number of companies, HR no longer thinks about getting its message out only after a big decision has been made.

And when there is news, many companies do not present, as a fait accompli, a neatly tied-up package of statements, press releases and videos of the CEO. Instead, HR often works hard to get employees and the public involved from the outset.

When, for example, the financial services company USAA consolidated its real estate this year, closing down offices in two cities, it not only reached out directly to the displaced workers, but also enlisted the help of employees throughout the country to create a companywide support network.

And when American Airlines took out a nearly $3 billion loan package in September to gain needed liquidity, it privately notified union leaders the evening before, so they would be able to answer any questions the next day from members.

"We've all done the endgame forever," says Jeffrey Brundage, American Airlines' senior vice president of human resources. "But now we're going out of our way to get input throughout the process. We're changing the substance of the communications."

HR executives, consultants and academicians say that, as the dynamic between employee and employer has changed in recent years, so has the importance of providing employees with the information they need to better comprehend and appreciate today's financial and economic realities. Whether they're being asked to take on more responsibility for everything from their healthcare plans to their career decisions, or are being asked to understand their employers' mission or rationale, employees are no longer being kept mostly in the dark about what is happening at their companies (though experts agree there continues to be room for improvement).

At the same time, social-networking sites and other new technologies -- along with our culture's craving for instant information -- has broken down the barrier between internal and external communications. Any information given to employees can be expected to appear in the public domain almost immediately. The inevitable swirl of employee gossip, speculation and grievance -- once limited to the water cooler and the break room -- is open for all to see on public Web sites.

All these factors have contributed to a powerful expectation -- among employees, customers and the media -- of a constant flow of information about nearly every aspect of an organization's affairs.

At some companies, HR professionals have tried to mostly ignore this growing pressure, dutifully blogging and opening Twitter and Facebook accounts, but otherwise continuing their standard operating procedure -- carefully managing a top-down, one-way flow of information.

Many other HR executives, however, have accepted and even welcomed the need for more open dialogue with employees and the public. And an increasing number are finding ways to turn the new technology -- particularly Web 2.0 -- to their distinct advantage. That includes helping shape the online communication that is already going on between employees.

"HR is not simply using that technology to respond to change, but to proactively enhance the relationship with the employee," says Martha Terry, Towers Perrin's global practice leader for communication. "Technology is helping HR shift from a defensive strategy in communications to an offensive one."

This represents a dramatic change in the character of HR communications, she says.

"There is a move from a more programmatic focus to education and support for decision-making," says Terry, who is based in Boston. "Rather than looking at stovepipes such as benefits, compensation and work environment, organizations today are striving to articulate the whole view of the deal" -- i.e., the entire package the company has to offer.

Or if they aren't, they probably should be.

Staying Ahead of the Curve

For example, says Terry, as employees see their healthcare plans getting more expensive and perhaps not as comprehensive, it's all the more essential for HR to emphasize key advantages the company can offer, such as opportunities for learning and professional development. HR needs to be more proactive in getting that message out.

The importance of this has been heightened by the economic downturn, says Terry. Employees are being held in place, but once the recession ends, companies will have to worry about workers jumping ship.

"Employers want to come out of the recession really competitive for talent," she says. "They need to be able to communicate that they have a strong value proposition for employees.

"HR can no longer afford to communicate only when it has something specific to say," says Terry. Now, there has to be an ongoing discussion with employees -- and with the public at large.

"Ten years ago, organizations had the advantage of being able to stage their communications," says Terry. If a company decided to lay people off, or make some other kind of move that would upset workers, "it could prepare its managers with [scripts], and there would be an announcement from a senior executive in HR. It would go out in a letter that was sanitized and reviewed to death -- everybody would be comfortable that the words on the page would be safe."

Companies do not have that same kind of control these days. With the growth of employee and public discussion about companies online, says Terry, "your reputation is at stake. Your brand is at stake."

One organization that understands the dynamics of social networking -- and has used it proactively -- is USAA, the San Antonio-based company that provides insurance and other financial services to military personnel and their families. In February, the company announced it would consolidate its real estate by closing its Sacramento, Calif., operation, and most of its offices in Norfolk, Va. About 1,100 of the company's 22,000 employees were affected.

USAA, which has kept its workforce levels about the same since the late 1990s, wanted to retain the displaced employees, says Executive Vice President of People Services Liz Conklyn. HR and corporate communications, working in close partnership, began an ambitious campaign to persuade as many workers as possible to relocate to the company's three other branch offices (in Phoenix, Tampa, Fla., and Colorado Springs, Colo.), or to corporate headquarters in San Antonio.

USAA created a social-networking site on the company's intranet expressly intended to connect the displaced workers with one another and with employees in the other cities.

Discussion boards were set up for each of the unaffected offices, so the displaced workers could pose questions to co-workers in those communities about schools, child care, real estate and other subjects they had to consider before deciding whether or not to move.

Conklyn says employees in the other cities were encouraged to reach out to the displaced employees, and many did, posting messages such as, " 'I have teen-age girls in the high school here; is there anything you want to know?' "

As employees began relocating, many reached back to workers who were still considering the move, posting messages such as, " 'I just moved to Tampa, and everything worked out,' " says Conklyn.

The networking site had "hundreds of thousands of hits," says Chris Olson, USAA's executive director of strategic internal communications. "We were not just using technology, but using technology to make it personal."

The company also filmed "video stories" about employees who were relocating -- and even those who were leaving the company. The stories were posted on the company intranet, and were shown on television screens in conference and break rooms.

"We pulled out all the stops, with lots of doses of caring and candor," says Conklyn.

Much of the campaign was powered by the old-fashioned personal touch. USAA's senior executives -- including Conklyn -- visited the offices in Sacramento and Norfolk to announce the closings and encourage the employees to relocate.

"Even though there are so many advantages to what you can do online, at the heart of it, people still need to know they are cared about," says Conklyn. "Nothing replaces someone looking the employee in the eye and saying, 'We want you to stay with the company because you mean a lot to us.' "

By the time the offices in Sacramento and Norfolk closed this past September, 54 percent of the displaced workers had decided to relocate.

The overall campaign had another, perhaps equally important goal -- to keep USAA's entire workforce in the loop about the office closings, and to strengthen the company's reputation as one that truly cares about its employees, says Conklyn.

Many employees throughout the company knew workers in the Sacramento and Norfolk offices, and kept a close eye on how they were treated, she says.

"Whenever you do something, people watch how you do it," she says. "They'll think, 'If I'm in the same boat, what are you going to do to me?' We wanted all of our people to feel we were trying to do the right thing."

The American Way

At Fort Worth, Texas-based American Airlines, as at USAA, the real value of HR communication goes beyond technology.

"Ten or 15 years ago, a lot of the communications that came out of HR were about good things like pay raises or bad things like job cuts -- it was tactical and direct," says American Airlines' Brundage.

"We've gone out of our way to change the substance of communications," he says. "We're talking about how to create opportunities to involve employees."

American's particular brand of human resource communications was developed in the crucible of an industry under stress.

Unlike other major carriers, American hasn't been pushed into bankruptcy by the decline in air travel, the rise in fuel costs and the global financial crisis -- all of which have marked this decade.

But American Airlines has made significant sacrifices to stay afloat. Since 9/11, the airline's workforce has dropped from 90,000 to 65,000, a reduction of more than one-quarter. Air routes have been cut and entire cities have been eliminated from American's roster.

Brundage has often had to deliver the difficult messages.

He spends 15 percent to 20 percent of his time on communications, a wide-ranging task that calls for keeping employees engaged and involved, informing the public and maintaining good relationships with the unions.

Brundage takes pains to emphasize that this is not a one-man show. While he sometimes sends letters to employees and conducts interviews with reporters, he more often plays a behind-the-scenes, supportive role in shaping the company's communication strategies.

At American, human resources is just part of a highly collaborative process that involves senior leadership, corporate communications and departments such as Operations, Finance, Marketing and Legal.

"Communications is a team effort, not something that's produced by the HR department," says Brundage. "We develop the strategies together."

For example, each Monday, all the senior operating leaders, mostly vice presidents, meet to discuss what has happened in their departments in the past week, what kinds of things will be happening in the coming week and how these developments will play out in internal and external communications.

Before any major announcement, Brundage will meet with corporate communications to consider the ramifications to employees, what mediums the communications will take, and whether, for example, the airline should be more proactive or reactive with the media.

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American's concept of employee communications, developed by CEO Gerard Arpey, is "Involve-Discuss-Share." That is, get the employees involved in any proposed changes before a decision is made, discuss with them the reasons such changes are being considered and, once a decision has been made, share it with them before they read about it in the newspapers.

With this approach, says Brundage, "the likelihood of getting support from the front-line teams and the management teams is exponentially better."

For instance, in recent years, American has announced several initiatives to improve service in business and first-class sections. Under the old model of communications, the company might make such changes without the input of the flight attendants, hoping to gain a competitive advantage by playing it close to the vest.

But, in these more recent moves, American got its flight attendants involved from the outset -- not only to get their support, but to take advantage of their knowledge and expertise.

"They understand how to hit the sweet spot when you adjust service," says Brundage. "We would not have designed nearly as good a product if it were not for them. And when you roll it out, you want the flight attendants to own it."

American makes a similar effort to involve its unions in decisions and messages. Relations between management and unions have historically been poor at American, as at other airlines, according to both Brundage and numerous news accounts over the years.

But with the industry in crisis, American has tried to make its dealings with labor more collaborative rather than confrontational.

Brundage is well-equipped to help make this happen. Prior to joining American, he worked in collective bargaining for the Air Line Pilots Association International.

In the past, he says, management at American would often communicate with the airline unions only when the company wanted concessions. But, since 2002, the company has been providing confidential financial information to the unions, he says.

And, once a month, management meets with labor leaders to discuss issues the unions consider significant. The unions can put any items they wish on the agenda, says Brundage.

"It's still up to management to make the decisions," he says, "but frequently, you can make a better decision if you have the unions' input in advance."

The company's decision to inform union leaders in advance of the impending loan package was representative of American's current relationship with labor, says Brundage.

"We believe there has to be a level of transparency," he says. "They can't feel they're going to be hoodwinked."

The company also seeks to make labor negotiations themselves as transparent as possible to employees and the public.

In the past, says Brundage, "labor relations were these smoky, opaque things that eventually popped out a deal. There was a flurry of communications just as negotiations were culminating."

American now has a public Web site,, intended to be a resource to employees, the media and other interested parties, says Brundage. It contains the status of proposals, meeting schedules and summaries, and comparisons of wage, benefits and other issues at American and its competitors.

One key goal of the Web site, says Brundage, is to make it clear to employees and the public that "while we're in negotiations, we're going to do our best to find the right answers, and also do our best to run a competitive company."

American's approach -- to be "simple, straightforward and factual," applies to dealing with the media as well, says Brundage, who occasionally speaks at press conferences, and regularly talks to reporters in off-the-record conversations to provide context and background.

"A large portion of what employees hear is going to come from the media," says Brundage. "We believe we're better served when we provide as much information as we can. Nature abhors a vacuum."

Brundage considers it essential to be open and candid with the media.

"I really believe in the no-spin zone," he says. "With the ability for instant fact-checking, with the way the world works in communications and the power of the crowd, there's no room for spin. You've got to hit it down the middle of the fairway."

Although many HR executives might be reluctant to make themselves available to reporters for off-the-record discussions, Brundage says it pays real dividends for the company.

"My personal view is that I want to spend enough time with reporters so they understand the story," he says. Reporters have incredible demands on their time, and may not have the chance to get all the information they might need, he says. With the background discussions, "we're furthering our own interests because the story will be more factual and more balanced, and the perspective will be there. It's a win-win."

Openness with the media is essential, as the traditional barrier between HR internal and external communications is vanishing, says Merrie Spaeth, founder of Spaeth Communications, a Dallas-based communications training and strategic consulting firm. She concurs that employees are increasingly turning to the media, as well as social networking sites, for information about their companies.

"It used to be that people complained about their employers to their friends and neighbors," says Spaeth. "Now they can complain to the world -- and they will."

Says David Ulrich, professor of business at the University of Michigan and a well-known HR expert, "We used to separate internal from external communications. Now, we know that the two need to meld and overlap."

The messages an organization communicates to its customers, investors and the broader community should be consistent with the messages it shares with employees, he says.

That means, says Ulrich, "HR can and should connect with public affairs in shaping clear, consistent and actionable messages to customers and employees.

"When the external messaging results in internal actions," he says, "companies have a higher chance of sustained success."

Modern HR communications aren't always visible, but they can be more effective than ever.

Says Spaeth, "You might not see HR's work in public. But if HR is doing its job, you'll see its handiwork."

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