Home Depot Remodels Internal Communications

home-depotThere’s something going on at Home Depot.

During a visit to my local Home Depot this week – my first in several months — I immediately spotted some changes, the first being the four orange apron-clad employees who greeted me as I walked in the door and offered to help me locate the items on my list.

I admit it – my first thought was that I was singled out because of my gender, sort of a reverse profiling.  But I quickly realized that every customer who entered was greeted in the same way.

I saw lots of other changes too, such as increased staff in the paint department (a source of much past frustration) and lots of stock on the shelves.  As I engaged in some casual conversation with the cashier, he mentioned that Home Depot is making a number of changes, all designed to win back customers and build loyalty.  That’s right, the cashier told me.

From an employee communications standpoint, that type of interaction is enough to send us into a happy trance.  We face a daily struggle to ensure that, amidst all the other “white noise” generated by our organization, employees at every level of the organization are familiar with the company’s goals and know how their work supports those goals.  Clearly, the folks at Home Depot are on the right track.

I did a little digging when I got home and found a BusinessWeek article from mid-May, “Putting Home Depot’s House in Order.”  I was interested to read that, in addition to a number of operational changes implemented by the retailer’s newest executive vice president of U.S. stores, the communications team has implemented a new policy designed to tame the email beast.  Instead of the 200 or so company emails and reports that a manager would typically receive on Mondays, the flood has been reduced to a single message.  The remaining info is posted to the company’s intranet.

Having been on the frontlines of that battle at a former company, I have great respect for Home Depot’s communications team and their ability to change behaviors, both at the corporate level where “Information push” is the general rule of thumb and at the unit level, where lack of time is often cited as an obstacle to intranet adoption.

Apparently, the Home Depot employee communications team found an opportunity to integrate their change into the division’s overall business strategy, successfully linking streamlined communications with more time for the store manager to focus on customer service and satisfaction.

Like the best home remodel, that internal communications change should yield a significant return on their customer win-back efforts.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.

Book review: PR 2.0: New Media, New Tools, New Audiences

PR 2.0Twitter. Facebook. YouTube. These tools of social media have become a ubiquitous part of communications, and they’re no longer just for casual use. Social media tools have found their way into the job responsibilities of marketing and public relations professionals all over the world.

But how do you use social media for PR?

I recently had the great opportunity to meet Deirdre Breakenridge of PFS Marketwyse, who was in Washington, DC speaking on a panel at the Vocus Users Conference. Deirdre is the author of my favorite PR manual, PR 2.0: New Media, New Tools, New Audiences, and she recently released Putting the Public Back Into Public Relations, which she co-authored with PR 2.0 guru Brian Solis. She’s also written several other books on public relations.

Amanda Miller Littlejohn and Deidre Breakenridge

Amanda Miller Littlejohn and Deidre Breakenridge

PR 2.0 —  or the marriage of traditional public relations with new media and social media tools — can be cost-effective and fun. I offer blog creation and blog content, Facebook Fan page set up and Twitter page set up for my clients as the core of my social media strategy menu, but the options for your PR 2.0 offerings are limitless.  PR 2.0 is not a passing trend, and if you have not yet gotten on board, you should seriously consider it. PR 2.0 is one of the most exciting areas of our industry, and it represents a great opportunity for social media enthusiasts to make a significant contribution to our profession.

Among other topics, PR 2.0 New Tools includes tips for how to

  • Create a corporate blog and blog editorial calendar
  • Set up a YouTube Channel for PR
  • Set up and monitor social media sites to maximize publicity opportunities
  • Use social media releases
  • Measure social media

If you’re looking for ideas on how to integrate social media into your existing public relations programming, I urge you to pick up the book.

Amanda Miller Littlejohn is a writer, publicist and public relations blogger in Washington, DC. She writes regularly about public relations career issues at Mopwater PR + Media Notes.

Communicating to Your Employees during a Crisis

emergency lightThe Metro rail collision in Washington, D.C. on Monday serves as a sober reminder that a crisis can occur anytime, anywhere.  In a matter of seconds, a business can be plunged into crisis mode, with little time to strategize about how notify their employees and update them on recovery plans.

Communicators owe it to themselves — and to their employees — to prepare for a crisis before being confronted with one.

Say you don’t have a crisis communications plan and you need to pull one together.  Where do you start?  At minimum, a good communication plan, regardless of type or size of the business, includes four basic elements:

  • a checklist that accounts for all audiences and vehicles
  • well-defined roles and responsibilities
  • a resource/phone list, and
  • a collection of samples

The checklist documents the top-line steps that need to be addressed when communicating to employees.  Examples:  When do you notify executives and employees?  How will you announce the crisis to your employees (voicemail, PA announcement, email, intranet, text message, Twitter, etc.)?  Will the switchboard/receptionist need to be notified and coached on how to handle calls?  How frequently will you provide status updates to your employees?

Roles and responsibilities must be defined ahead of time, and redundancy built in just in case the person responsible for the task is unavailable.  Examples:  Who will serve as the key internal spokesperson?  Who approves the content of the announcements?  Who can send a text/email/voicemail to all employees?  Who can post to the intranet?  Who is responsible for updating the executive team?

Having an up-to-date list of available resources and phone numbers will save critical minutes during a crisis.  The list should include: home and cell numbers for all executives and management team members; emergency contact info for all employees; home and cell numbers for key members of the IT support team; phone and fax numbers for all locations; Red Cross and other relief agencies, etc.  In addition, I recommend that medium to large companies establish an inbound phone number for employees to call for status updates and building closure information.

Finally, it’s always a good idea to have a collection of samples and templates on hand.  Examples:  scripts for the operator/receptionist; internal holding statements and updates; voice mail and text messages; talking points for managers, etc.  Depending on the emergency, you may find that you need to rely on communications novices to help work through your checklist.  In that case, the templates will come in quite handy.

Don’t put off crisis communications planning because it seems like an insurmountable task. There are a variety of good crisis communications resources available online:

In addition, many trade associations have created crisis planning resources to help their members.  Call their member services number or check out the Web site.  Or, you can check with your local Chamber of Commerce; many of them offer this type of resource to their members.

Plan ahead.  You’ll be glad you did.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.

What to Tell Employees When You Don’t Have All the Answers

Layoffs. Plant closings. Mergers. Executive departures.

These are uncertain times and, thanks to the economy, fear and paranoia, the rumor mill is stronger than ever.

When a company is gearing up for a major change during these uncertain times, the worst approach leadership can take is to hold off on communicating to employees until all decisions have been made, to sit back and wait until they have all the answers before addressing rumors and speculation.

So what do you say when you don’t have all the answers, when there are still unknowns? How do you announce a change when there are still many variables to be decided or when the end game is not entirely clear?

First, don’t discount the role of the manager or supervisor in this scenario. Employees will often go to their manager for “the real story” and if the management team has not been briefed in advance, they won’t be able to reinforce the key messages. Make sure that your managers understand the issues, can answer question about the facts at hand, and are comfortable reinforcing the unknown elements of the change.

Next, leadership should introduce the change with an acknowledgement that employees will have concerns and that there will be opportunities to voice those concerns. They should stress that this initial announcement is intended to provide context and outline the elements of the change that are known at this time, as well as the unknown. In addition, they should articulate a timeline for the change and specify which programs, divisions or teams may be impacted.

The first communication should set the stage for future updates and reinforce a commitment to communicate frequently as more information becomes available. It should also include instructions for voicing concerns or raising questions – to the manager, the executive, etc. And it should close with a sincere acknowledgement of how difficult change is in any organization and that the organization appreciates the employees support and dedication.

You owe it to your employees to be as honest and direct as possible about the changes afoot. This open communication won’t eliminate the rumor mill, but it will keep it in check.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.

Handling Tough Questions From Employees

During a town hall meeting a few years ago, I witnessed, first-hand, the worst possible response to a tough employee question.

The employees at this location, about 800 of them, were primarily hourly workers at the local call center. Up to this point, most of the questions from the floor centered on the overall industry, competition and new product releases. Pretty standard fare for this type of session, and the executives on the panel handled themselves with their characteristic poise and candor.

That all changed when a women, about five months pregnant, stood to ask her question.

She told the panel that she rode the bus to work and that the only affordable option for daycare was near her home, about an hour’s ride and two transfers away from the job site. She mentioned that many of her co-workers were also having difficulty juggling child care with shift hours. And she asked, “Will we ever get a daycare center onsite?”

The executive’s answer: “No.”

No expression of empathy. No acknowledgement of her struggles. Just “no.”

The audience was, to say the least, not pleased with the way that question was answered. In fact, the mood of the room deteriorated rapidly, and we’re lucky we made it out in one piece.

So what would have been a better response?

Well, for starters, it would have been good to show some genuine appreciation for the employee and her coworkers who dealt with work-life balance issues on a daily basis, yet still managed to put up impressive customer satisfaction scores.

And maybe the executive could have talked about fact that daycare was far outside the company’s core offerings, and that anything as precious as a child should be cared for by highly-skilled professionals.

At the very least, the executive could have thanked the employee for her question, and requested that he be allowed time to give such an important decision the thought it deserved. Later, after engaging local management in a fact-finding and discussion, he could follow up with that location to explain the company’s decision not to offer onsite daycare.

But he didn’t.

Moral of the story – before answering a tough question from employee, take a minute to think about what motivated the question. In many instances, the employee isn’t looking for an immediate solution – just an acknowledgement that his/her concerns are valid and that the company cares.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.

I Just Graduated and I Want a Job in Social Media

Steve Radick is one of the leads for Booz Allen Hamilton’s social media practice where he supports clients from across the public sector on how to integrate social media into communications strategies and tactics. He blogs about social media and Government 2.0 at Social Media Strategery, and currently serves on the Advisory Board for the SmartBrief on Social Media and the Program Committee for the Government 2.0 Expo Showcase.

For the last few months, I’ve been talking with a lot of new college grads about their college experiences, jobs, and careers.  When I tell these eager young professionals that I’m a communications consultant who specializes in social media, I usually get one of two questions: 1) What does that mean? or 2) Seriously? How do I get to do that?

To address those of you who would have asked me the first question, I help my government clients develop and implement communications strategies and tactics so that they can better communicate with their employees, other government partners, the general public – essentially with any of their stakeholders. One way in which I do this is through the strategic use of social media tools like blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

However, the second question has been much more popular and has led to the most interesting conversations.  So, for all you new college graduates out there looking to get a public relations or communications position that involves social media, here’s a little primer:

DO include links to your blog, LinkedIn profile, Facebook page, Twitter profile or any other social media site on your resume. Employers want to see things that you’ve written and how you use these sites.

DON’T forget to make use of the privacy settings on these sites.  Your future employer WILL Google you, not to try to find incriminating pictures, but to get a better idea of how you use social media. Using Facebook to organize your local PRSSA chapter is very different from using Facebook to invite your friends to a kegger. It’s all about balance – most people realize that you have a life outside of work.  That’s ok.  Just make sure that’s not all you’re about.

DO some research on your potential employer and discover what, if any, social media presence they have.  If you’re applying for a government position working with communications or social media, you better be able to tell me that you at least know what GovLoop is.

DON’T try too hard.  I don’t want to do a search on you to discover that you joined Twitter a week ago and you’re following every Booz Allen employee you could find or that you’ve just joined 26 different PR-related groups on LinkedIn in the last few days.  Just be you and be authentic.

DO be ready to walk me through the steps you might take if I told you that I the CEO of a company and I wanted to start a blog.  Hint: if you tell me that you don’t have any experience with doing that, you’re probably not going to be interviewing much longer :)

DON’T overvalue your social media skills.  Social media, while hot right now, isn’t always the answer.  Make sure that you have a solid understanding of communication principles because we can teach you how to use Twitter – it’s much more difficult to teach you how to successfully build a communications strategy.

And last, but certainly not least, please DO a Google search for your name.  What shows up?  What doesn’t?  Remember that this is the new first impression.  If you aren’t completely honest about your skills and experiences, it’s really easy to track your digital exhaust and find out the truth. So, what kind of first impression do you want to make?

Image Courtesy of Flickr User of theevilmightyf

Podcasting: Beyond the iPod

If blogs can transform people into journalists, does podcasting transform them into TV or radio personalities?  It sure looks that way, based on a presentation by Richard Harrington of RHED Pixel at a June 4 lunch program of the Independent Public

Mary-Jane Atwater

Mary-Jane Atwater

Relations Alliance, a committee of PRSA-NCC.

Several at the meeting were podcast veterans, including Mary Fletcher Jones of Fletcher Prince, who has created PR Conversations in Public Relations, a podcast featuring what Mary says are “DC’s most interesting public relations professionals.”  Others at the IPRA meeting have just begun to create podcasts.  But the majority of us were podcasting rookies, eager to learn about how podcasting technology can be used to benefit our clients.

If anyone thinks that podcasting is tied to iPods and Apples, think again.  Rather, podcasting is a highly targeted, syndicated series of video or audio shows available online to people who subscribe to them (usually for free and through an RSS feed).  And unlike videos posted on YouTube, podcasts can be downloaded from host sites to all types of consumer electronic devices (TVs, computers, mobile phones, gaming systems) to watch when it’s convenient.  That means no more email blasts or expensive postage to ship DVDs.

A quick check of the podcasts available for free download from the iTunes directory shows that there’s no limit to podcast topics:  action sports, arts, crafts, cooking, the environment, how-to, hi-tech, parenting, world news and more.  Since 85% of all Americans can now get online whenever they want, and 82% of U.S. homes with Internet now have broadband, the market for podcasts is enormous.  According to Richard Harrington, 35-44 year olds are the largest groups of podcast subscribers.

With an opt-in audience and the ability to target niche markets, it would seem that podcasts are a smart move for many businesses and nonprofits.  But Harrington cautions that podcasts are not for everyone, especially those who don’t have the time or resources to create new episodes and add new production features.  Podcasts can’t stand alone to establish your brand (but they can help extend your brand), and they certainly aren’t for those who like to keep things private.

Still, podcasting appears to be a great, relatively low-cost way to grow an audience and provide information, including showing how a product is used or describing a service. As PR professionals, we need to know when podcasting should be part of a PR plan and be comfortable explaining this technology to our clients.  IPRA’s program helped move us in that direction.

Bridging the Credibility Gap with Employee Communications

Susan_Rink-portrait-forwebA few years ago, a friend of mine was hired to conduct employee focus groups to gauge reactions to a new, and rather expensive, employee awareness campaign.  When she asked for comments about the company’s communications vehicles, one participant pointed to the Exit sign over the door and said, “That’s the only sign in this place that I trust.  The rest are all bulls___.”

Now, that’s a credibility gap!

Many companies suffer from a disconnect between what they say and what they do.  One classic example is the company that trumpets, “Our people are our greatest asset!” while they establish employee policies that restrict creativity and entrepreneurial thinking.  Or their executives talk about “work-life balance,” but employees feel pressured to check email and call in for staff meetings while on vacation.  No surprise that these companies suffer from higher than average turnover and low productivity.

Companies that truly value their employees demonstrate their high regard by treating their employees like adults, like valued business partners.

These organizations foster an environment of open discussion and respectful conflict, encouraging employees to take ownership of issues and voice their suggestions for improvements.  And when it comes time to be recognized, the employees’ contributions to the company’s success are rewarded.

So how can employee communicators bridge the credibility gap?  Well, if your company is in the midst of a crisis of confidence, it won’t be easy.  But it can be done.

First, you must establish a culture of open dialogue, one where employees are comfortable voicing dissenting opinions without fear of reprisal.  That can be accomplished by publishing contrarian points of view in your newsletter and on your intranet.  Managers can reinforce this new culture by inviting employees to voice their objections, and listen without becoming defensive.

Next, you must ensure that your company recognition programs, both formal and informal, reward behaviors that reflect your desired culture. Don’t restrict recognition to tenure.  If the one of the company values is innovation, then employees who think differently and challenge traditional processes should be recognized.

Finally, the best way to bridge the credibility gap is with timely, transparent employee communications.  Executives, managers –and the internal communications team — must commit to addressing real business issues and providing honest progress updates that are free of spin and “corporate speak.”

Otherwise, once the economy turns your employees will be looking for that Exit sign.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.

Time for an Employee Communications Check-up

StatisticsThank goodness for Jiffy Lube. I drive up, they check a bunch of fluids and things like that, replace some other stuff (can you tell I’m not a mechanic?), and send me through the car wash. A mere 20 minutes later I drive off, secure in the knowledge that this mysterious machine I rely on to get me from Point A to Point B won’t break down on the way to a client meeting. Best of all, they slap a little sticker on my windshield to let me know when I need to come back.

We communicators can learn a lot from Jiffy Lube.

Seriously. When was the last time you gave your employee communications programs a check-up? I’m not talking about a full-scale audit, just a quick assessment of your messaging and vehicles.

Unless your organization has adopted a balanced scorecard system of quarterly metrics, it’s probably been a while. You can’t be sure which vehicle is operating at its full potential. And worse, you have no way of knowing whether that labor-intensive vehicle is worth the time and effort you put into it.

So here are some simple steps for giving your employee communications programs a check-up.

Step One: Inventory

You can’t measure something if you don’t know it exists. So I recommend that you pull together a comprehensive listing of all your communication vehicles. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy — a table or spreadsheet that lists each vehicle, the target audience, content, frequency, method of delivery, etc. Take advantage of this inventory process to collect any metrics associated with those vehicles (web traffic, readership and post-event surveys, program participation, etc.)

Step Two: Assess

Now that you have a snapshot of your communications efforts, you should be able to see where there are redundancies and vehicles with low ROE (return on effort). Take a look at any metrics collected in Step One and use that data to determine if the vehicle is meeting your expectations.

Step Three: Purge

Now is the time to take a hard look at those “pet projects” and eliminate those that don’t support your overall communication strategy. Be bold — if less than 30% of your target audience is actually reading that newsletter, it’s time to retire the publication and deliver that content via another vehicle.

Step Four: Launch

With the “deadweight” eliminated, this is your opportunity to introduce a new vehicle — or expand an existing vehicle — to fill that gap identified in Step One. Look for ways to maximize your effort and multipurpose content in as many vehicles as possible.

Step Five: Schedule

Make a point to do a quick check-up at least once a year. This information will be particularly useful when budget time rolls around — the valuable insight you’ve gained will help determine where to devote your resources in the year to come.

Susan

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.

Proactive Employee Communications

Team HuddleAs I listened to the financial news this afternoon, it occurred to me that — for the first time in months — I was hearing more positive stories about the economy than negative ones. Case in point, there was actually a quote from an economist who believes that the worst of the recession is behind us, and we are now on the long, slow uphill climb to recovery.

So after a brief mental celebration, I started to think about what this news would mean to corporations and their employees, and how internal communicators should be adjusting their employee communications activities to reflect this shift from recession to recovery.

Let’s face it — it’s been a tough year to be in employee communications.

I’m betting that most employee communications professionals have been working in crisis mode for the past six months or so — putting their CEOs and CFOs front and center to rally the troops around the corporate flag. That’s what I would be doing in their place.

So I have to wonder how many of these same communicators are already adjusting their approaches, shifting messaging from dire predictions to reflect a glimmer of hope on the horizon? How many are planning aggressive employee outreach to push out the new, more optimistic outlook?

I’m guessing most are just happy to go a few weeks without announcing “staff reductions” and “right-sizing”…

Sure, the economy may be turning the corner. But this is not the time to fall back into pre-recession patterns of reactive employee communications.

While your sales may be ticking upward this month, your employees are still feeling the effects of the economy: the value of their home has plummeted, their 401K balance has dried up, and their faith in their job security has evaporated during several rounds of layoffs.

Your employees have been tested on every level this year, and their long-term commitment to your company is shaky at best. Chances are, once the job market brightens up, a large percentage of your staff will be out the door and on to greener pastures.

But there is still time to win back the hearts and minds of your employees. To do so, during this period of recovery employees need to hear from their leaders on a consistent and predictable basis. They need straight talk from executives and access to unfiltered news about the company and its progress. And who better to provide that information than the very executive who has been front and center during the crisis — your CEO?

At some point in the future, your company will be back in growth mode, and you will be desperate for committed, engaged employees. So start taking steps now to rebuild that level of commitment and loyalty among your employees.

After all, isn’t that what a “recovery period” is all about?

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.