By Robert J. Holland
One of the basic tenets of employee communication is that company news should never appear in the press before employees hear it from management.
Headlines about layoffs, plant closings or even good news like an acquisition or hiring spree shouldn’t surprise employees. An effective employee communication strategy must include ways of keeping employees informed about company news before it goes public. Here’s how.
It starts with a plan
If your organization doesn’t already have a strategic communication plan, write one. It should include strategies for communicating with internal and external audiences. If you have two separate plans – an employee communication plan and a media relations plan – each should include information about how one interacts with the other.
For example, if the employee communication plan includes a strategy for informing employees about the company’s financial performance each quarter, it should detail not only how and when the information will be shared with employees, but also how and when it will be shared publicly.
The bottom line: Internal and external communications should support each other.
Sync up the messages
The plan or plans also should include consistent messages for internal and external audiences. Sometimes the information shared with employees will contain specifics and details that you won’t share with the public, but the basic messages should be consistent.
For example, a message to employees about a pending acquisition might include a statement that the post-acquisition company will have stronger brands and will be in a better position to serve its customers. The employee communication might also include some discussion of how the cultures of the two companies will combine and some of the steps the company is taking to ensure a smooth integration for employees.
External audiences might not hear the details of how the integration will affect employees (unless the company is a major local employer), but they should get the message about the benefits for the company’s brands and how it will better serve customers.
The bottom line: Don’t tell employees one thing and tell the public another.
Employees first whenever possible
This should go without saying, but when working out the timing of major announcements, always count on telling employees first whenever possible. There are times when laws, regulations or other binding agreements dictate that employees may not receive information in advance, but at the very least, make internal and external announcements simultaneously. The mechanisms for how to release information at the appropriate times must be worked out in advance, which is another good reason for developing a strategic communication plan.
Trust erodes when employees learn company news from the news media first. Make a good-faith effort to keep them informed so there are no surprises when they turn on the TV news, read the newspaper or visit a news website.
The bottom line: Don’t surprise employees with announcements in the news media.
Remember social media
Keeping the lid on company news is more difficult in the highly networked world of social media. News travels much more quickly now that more people tune in to Twitter and visit Facebook, even during work hours. Account for this when planning an external announcement and redouble your efforts to inform employees first.
Consider using social media to your advantage. Many companies have created Facebook pages that are closed to the public, but which serve as an effective way to keep employees informed about company news and events. Some companies also encourage employees to follow the company on Twitter so they can see the information being shared with customers, partners and other external groups. Social media have the added benefit of building a sense of community among employees.
The bottom line: News travels more quickly with social media, so use it to your advantage.
Constantly keep employees in the loop
Most companies have a way of sharing external coverage of the company and its industry with employees, whether it is a weekly email news digest or a newsfeed on the intranet homepage. The more you keep employees informed with a constant flow of information about the company, the less likely it is that they will be surprised by what they read or hear in the press or online. You also send a message to employees that it’s important for them to know what’s going on with the company, within its industry and in the business world generally.
The bottom line: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
About Robert J. Holland
Robert J. Holland is owner of Holland Communication Solutions, an independent communication consulting firm based in Richmond, Virginia.
He specializes in employee communication strategy and implementation and has worked with Fortune 500 companies as well as small businesses and nonprofits. Robert also teaches public relations courses at Virginia Commonwealth University. He blogs at Communication at Work.