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A Communication team’s most valuable, yet most underleveraged asset – Employees

Abhinav KumarAbhinav Kumar·

In today’s context, any organization worth its salt has intensive Crisis Communications plans in place.

Ranging from tactical actions for PR teams to take during dawn raids by regulators, to the larger picture of future scenario planning for remote possibility events – which long term thinking companies like Shell really excel at.

Even a traditional power utility company, whose headquarters I visited last year, had a global control room with its engineers and social media staff working together in one area, to jointly deal with crises caused by any power outages.

Very few companies get crises right

Yet when the proverbial discharge hits the fan, it is still rare to find companies that really deal well with major crises.

There are some sterling exceptions, such as KFC’s handling of its restaurant shut down in the UK with humor and a great creative that will probably be a contender for the advertisement of the year for 2018.

As another example, Uber is often the brunt of constructive criticism when it comes to communications strategies, but it’s response to the suspension of its license in London is a masterclass in activating an eco-system to support the company.

Within hours of the adverse decision, the company had launched a “Save Your Uber” campaign which garnered the support of its 40,000 drivers and culminated in a petition signed by over 800,000 of its customers.

Activating this scale of mass public support in your favor, especially when under siege, is something most communications directors would probably trade in an arm and a leg for.

United Airlines could have done with a dose of this when they faced a viral international media and social sphere crisis related to the forced removal of one of its passengers.

While the company apologized for the incident, it went on to become one of the most prolific PR stories of 2017.

The fact of the matter is that this was one client experience among 148 million passengers that the airline serves annually, and one flight in the 1.6 million it operates over the year.

I personally had a diametrically opposite experience with United, in the same period that this incident occurred.

While on a family trip from New York City to Madrid, a United pilot delighted our two young boys by engaging them in a conversation at the airport, explaining the various types of aircraft they fly and handing them their own pilot wings.

Undoubtedly there would have been thousands of such positive experiences taking place on a daily basis between United’s employees and its customers. Yet that one negative incident can end up over-representing your brand and reputation.

This is the risk that communications team live with on a daily basis. Yet they often do not utilize what is probably one of the foremost assets they have at this disposal – their own employees.

When an individual faces a crisis or a grave personal challenge, who do they turn to? Their families, friends and their support systems to help them through their difficult periods. Since they are the ones that care most for them.

Why shouldn’t companies do similarly when facing a crisis and work harder at activating their natural constituencies – their employees, advocates, partners and even their clients?  Since they are the ones that care the most for them.

The Power of Employees – in good times and bad

I firmly believe that employees can be a very vital force when engaged and activated by their companies.

In good times, engaged employees can serve as an organization’s best conscience, helping identify risks and any bad practices well in advance before they blow up into crises.

If leadership teams can create an environment where employees find it safe to raise issues and have their views listened to, it can act as a force multiplier to protect your company from reputation crises in the future.

Employee engagement and corporate reputation are mutually reinforcing concepts, whose positive impact on an organization are akin to the impact of the right diet and exercise on a person’s health.

Yet it is when times are bad, that the entire external world tries to engage with your employees (which is now extremely easy to do on social networks) to seek an authentic version of what is transpiring.

If a company has strong internal communications mechanisms and has empowered its employees with timely information, they are able to field questions from clients and the community, working hard to protect the reputation of their companies and in inference – themselves.

Yet, if they are themselves watching CNN or BBC to see what their company will say, they often feel disenfranchised and frustrated – and are less prone to counter any negative dialogues. This is a nutshell makes the case of prioritizing Internal Communications as a vital organization function.

The State of Internal Communications

A recent global survey on the state of Internal Communications makes for some worrisome reading.

54% of respondents said that they do not understand their company’s short-term plans, 57% do not understand the long-term strategy and a staggeringly low 23% said that their teams understand the decision that the company’s leadership teams are making.

On the supply side, this mirrors Poppulo’s research that only a third of internal communicators have long-term strategies in place to engage employees.

Disengagement when not met by counterbalancing outreach, fuels itself.

Aon Hewitt’s 2018 Global employee engagement survey, while showing a small positive bounce from the previous year, concluded that only 27% of the global workforce is highly engaged with their employers.

This should be a matter of concern not just for the HR department, but also the Communications function.

Interestingly, the top 3 reasons cited for lack of engagement were: Poor line manager communications (56%), Technology not being fit for purpose (52%) and Overload of information (45%).

The first is an organizational culture and staffing issue but, interestingly, the next two can be effectively solved by using emerging digital technologies.

The Role of Digital

I strongly believe that digital technology has a huge role to play in creating stronger employee engagement, with major downstream benefits to the organization and also its communications prerogatives.

Whether it is Enterprise Social Networks or effective holistic tools like Poppulo, never has there been more capability to engage employees, create communities and ensure purposeful customized content is available at the convenience of employees.

As an organization with almost 400,000 employees located in 46 countries across the world, we have invested heavily in our internal social networks to create a “digital spine” across our enterprise.

Our internal social network, called Knome, is a vibrant confluence of communities of interest, news sharing, and innovation.

As the veritable pulse of the organization, it ends up being a terrific channel for functional and line leaders in the company, to understand issues that employees are raising and importantly, engage in a two-way communication with them.

Often some of the best ideas for change or even new business opportunities have come from the confluence of thoughts on this network.

Given virtual workforces, we are also using mobile apps quite significantly to communicate between teams and share knowledge.

Digital channels, particularly social media, can also be a very effective way to humanize your company and bring out the stories of your employees.

Our #TCSsuperstars programme brings out some remarkable stories of achievements outside of work that our employees are doing – be it running the world toughest race (6 days across the Sahara Desert) or being accomplished authors, photographers, and even drone racing champions.

Similarly, our multiple award-winning #DigitalEmpowers campaign, which was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos, shows how the technologies we have developed are helping improve lives and create inclusion at a human level.

In similar efforts, many companies today are experimenting and adopting new digital tools to boost their internal communications.

All of these are small steps in a much larger marathon that every business needs to run to become a Business 4.0 ready enterprise.

Management guru Stephen Covey famously said, “Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers.”

Adapting his words for the field of communications, I would say: “Always treat your employees exactly as you would treat your media spokespeople.”


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