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.