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Communicating creatively in tough times.

In these tough, competitive times, to stay above water, organizations often must make changes: how they are structured, how they do business, and how much they spend on pay and benefits. To maintain a motivated, contributing work force, organizations need to deal effectively with the increasingly difficult communication challenges.

Tough Issues,

Tough Messages

Consider some of the messages employers are now sending to employees:

* Your pay is not longer steady, unchanging and fixed. It will depend increasingly on your performance. We're introducing "variable" pay.

* Your health care coverage is costing more. You'll be picking up a bigger share of those higher costs.

* We're restructuring our retirement benefits. Under our new program, you'll have more responsibility for shaping and financing your future security.

* We're tightening our belts and reorganizing our operations. We'll open a "voluntary termination window" for you to consider. Keep in mind that it may be followed by an involuntary termination program.

These are complex, controversial issues, issues that are often clouded with emotion and that affect employees in significant ways. Delivering messages like these clearly, concisely and creatively would be difficult even if communication budgets weren't under pressure.

Often underlying the communication of these tougher issues are larger employee relations goals, including:

* Establishing (or rebuilding) trust between management and employees,

* Helping employees to understand (or accept) an issue, and

* Possibly allaying (or at least minimizing) employee concerns and fears.

Generally, the issues being addressed fall into one of more of three categories. There are organization issues--restructuring, downsizing, directing, changing ownership. There are benefit issues--cost sharing, responsility shifting, redefining the employer's financial support. And recently, there has been much change--even revolution--in compensation practices.

Tough Issue:

Organizational Changes

In the 1980s, we all heard a lot about "cultural change"--an attempt to redefine the organization's value system. Communicators worked hard to convince employees that they had to work smarter, strive for excellence (often vaguely defined) and stay closer to the customer. But much was empty rhetoric. Today, those themes are still in place. But they're being made tangible by heavier organizational changes, such as downsizing, restructuring, merging and changing some of the ground rules that used to define the employee/employer relationship. These changes often intimidate and frighten employees. Their concerns are job security, decreases in pay, and loss of health and pension benefits. These concerns can sink employee morale, and make a mockery of the optimistic messages sent only a few years earlier. Employees have difficulty reconciling platitudes like, "People are our most important resource" when they see thousands of coworkers being laid off.

Tough Issue: Benefits

In benefits, employees are bearing more of the burden of rising health care costs, and they're dealing with new and sometimes disruptive concepts like "managed care networks." With costs in the millions of dollars and growing faster than inflation, employee benefits have the attention of top management.

And because of their higher-than-ever economic value, employees are no less concerned. Today, millions of employees are able to make choices about their benefits through flexible benefits programs. Often with flexible benefits, more of the responsibility and cost is shifted to employees. Sometimes this has been done openly. Other times, employers hid or soft-pedaled their motives. The fact is, since 1980, the average medical plan has dropped in value by more than 10 percent (even though costs have gone up.)

Retirement benefits also are undergoing change. Companies are now emphasizing the employee's role in building retirement income, mainly through pre-tax savings plan. New uncertainty also exists regarding retiree health benefits. Employers may soon find themselves dealing with a tough message targeted to an audience that doesn't take well to what it may see as a broken promise.

Tough Issue: Compensation

Compensation issues became prominent in the late '80s, and promise to remain influential in this decade. As organizations became "leaner and meaner" or changed their cultures, they worked harder at tying pay to individual and company performance. Changing well-established, comfortable pay practices can be extremely threatening.

Another key issue for companies in a financial pinch is smaller pay increases, or even wage freezes. Recently, a large retailer announced a one-year wage freeze for 20,000 salaried workers. The effect on employee morale is obvious. But that impact can extend to productivity, and it can cause a company's top performers to move elsewhere.

Performance management--one of the principal ways managers and employees influence the way a company operates--is perhaps the most prominent compensation issue facing business today. Performance management profoundly affect the way managers and employees interact, as it attempts to tie broad company goals to specific individual actions. If employees and managers are confused about the precise goals of performance management, or if they fear it will have a negative impact, a company's goals may be threatened.


Building a basic understanding of these tough issues is a challenge. It's an even bigger challenge to build acceptance.

For years, communicators have become accustomed to helping employees feel good about the "challenges and improvements" the company is making. Now, we're quite happy with a different set of objectives--gaining acceptance, minimizing negative reactions, preventing a deterioration of morale.

In a recent survey conducted after an extensive communication campaign explaining medical cost shifting, about 50 percent of employees surveyed said if it had been up to them, they would have made the same changes. The employer had every reason to be delighted with that response.

More than ever before, success in communicating tough issues will depend on focusing our campaigns on the employee's perspective instead of the company's. What de employees need to hear? What are their needs and concerns? What are the obstacles standing between understanding and acceptance? Through survey research, marketers get inside consumers' heads to find out what they want and what they're thinking. We can apply those same techniques to the employee population to identify the stumbling blocks and misunderstandings that can get in our way.

Success Principles

Are these impossible challenges? Not at all. There are some principles that can ease the pain of communicating complex, sensitive issues and lead to successful communication. These principles include creativity, planning, listening to employees, honesty, and the involvement of managers. They may seem deceptively simple. But behind each one is a process that takes a significant commitment of time and resources.

Communicating Creatively

Creativity is the key ingredient to successful communication. And here, we're not talking about cute themes, catchy tag lines or trendy graphics. In this context, creativity means a fresh approach--trying something new, maybe something a little risky. Many employers assume that because they are conveying a "negative" message, the communication should be straightforward and unimaginative. A serious memo from the president, perhaps. Or a drab, impersonal bulletin board announcement. They fear employees will get upset, or be offended, with anything else. This is not necessarily true. The medium should be matched to the message.

Consider rising health costs in the United States. Employees need to understand why costs are increasing, and what they can do to help keep their medical costs down. Perhaps a comic book explaining increasing health costs would be more effective than a three-page, black-and-white memo. Or a diagrammatic display that shows how the dollars spent on health care costs need to come from someplace (like other components of total compensation or higher prices to customers). Chances are, more people will read and remeber the comic book or check out your display.

When a company communicates confidently, resourcefully and creatively, employees appreciate the effort that's been made to ensure that the message is clear and understandable. In the examples mentioned earlier, a few people may complain that the company spent too much money, but the silent majority probably feels differently. If the message got through, the expense may be well worth it. Ignorance or indifference may be far more expensive.

Another aspect of creativity centers on interpreting what things mean to employees, rather than just telling them about changes or new programs. It's the difference between informing and motivating. Any communication can explain how a new performance management program works. But it takes a lot of thought and effort to describe what the program really means to employees. We need to structure our materials to help people "buy into" the process. That's how advertisers sell toothpaste, cars and canned peas. It's how companies can effectively "sell" a program or a set of changes.

One company sent out a detailed, clearly written brochure that described cost-shifting changes in the company's medical plan. The brochure was thorough and accurate. Management was caught off-guard weeks later when the complaints of employees began coming in. Follow-up focus groups revealed the cause. As one employee put it, "You told us what it was, not what it meant."


Creative, effective communication doesn't just happen. It requires careful planning. In many cases, that means asking and answering a lot of questions. When the communication is completed, what key messages should employees remeber? How should behavior change? What obstacles stand in the way of employee understanding and appreciation? What methods seem well-suited to the task? The end result of the planning process should be a detailed action plan--a written document that spells out objectives, obstacles, media plans, timetables, responsibilities and costs. Setting clear, realistic objectives gives you a yardstick to measure the effectiveness of your communication effort. Once obstacles are identified, it's much easier to find creative ways around them.


Another important step is often overlooked in the rush to get materials written and produced: gathering employee input. In approaching the communication of a tough issue, companies should ask temselves:

* What de employees already know about this subject?

* What do they expect?

* What do they misunderstand?

* Where do they prefer to get information of this type?

* What will be the toughest part of the message to accept?

If you don't know the answers to questions like these, your communication is likely to miss the target.

One listening technique is a written survey sent to a random sample of employees. That gives you a useful profile of who the audience is demographically--age, earnings, family status and so on. Surveys often use standardized questions to gather information that can be compared to a larger database of similar information from other organizations.

Another listening technique is focus groups--group discussions with 10 to 15 employees designed to probe attitudes and test new ideas. Focus groups provide a more open, interactive forum for employees to air their questions and concerns. The results are often startling.

For example, recent focus groups conducted at a large New England manufacturing company revealed that most employees think their current health benefits are "about a three or four" on a scale of one to 10. In reality, the company's benefits rank much higher. through computer analysis, they rate as good or better than most of their peer companies. Armed with this knowledge, this company was able to plan a much more effective communication strategy.


Honesty is critical in communicating tough messages. And honesty doesn't just mean telling the truth. It means clearly explaining what is happening, why it's happening, and how employees will be affected. As any parent knows, a partial truth differs only in degree from an out-and-out lie. But honesty doesn't mean giving people so much information that they can't understand the real impact of a change.

Organizations that communicate tough messages with a "tell them as little as possible" approach find greater employee resistance and less understanding of the fundamental reasons for change. Over time, this builds a wall of employee ignorance and mistrust that is extremely difficult to scale.

A few years ago, when medical costs began rising, "cost management" procedures were added to medical plans. Features such as hospital pre-certification and second surgical opinions were put into place to curb increasing medical expenses. Perhaps inadvertently, many companies weren't entirely honest in presenting these changes to employees. They often said things like, "We have a problem--escalating health care costs--and here's the solution." that wasn't totally true. You didnt need to be a rocket scientist to recognize that the problem was too big to be corrected by low-impact, low-penalty procedures. Because these features were often introduced as a panacea, stronger measures have become increasingly difficult to introduce and rationalize.

Today, companies are beginning to say, "We have a big problem, and we honestly don't have a complete solution ... the problem is bigger than we are. But for sound business reasons, we need to take action. We hope these steps will help, but there's no way to know for sure." This is coupled with more employee education on the root causes of why the health care delivery system isn't working very well. Does this make people happier? No. But it's more honest. It builds trust, understanding, and--eventually--acceptance.

Involving Managers

Whether a company's communication objective is to build understanding or change behavior, manager involvement is crucial. Managers--especially in the lower-and-middle management ranks--are a key influence on the acceptance of change in an organization.

In some companies, supervisors and managers find out about key changes at the same time employees do. In the name of egalitarianism, they often get no more information than the rank and file. Then, when employees ask questions, managers respond with answers like, "I don't know what they're doing. This is the first I've heard of it." These reactions distance managers from the key decision-makers. Rather than feeling like partners in the organization, they feel like outsiders. And, their reactions inspire little trust among employees.

If a company keeps its managers in the dark, ignores them and fails to enlist their support, they will work to defeat change. But if managers are trusted, informed and made advocates for company goals, they will help make change happen. Companies need to take special steps to make sure managers have what they need to support organizational goals.

The Key is Creativity

Factors like planning, honesty, and listening employees' concerns and meaningful management involvement are important, but the key to effective communication is creativity. To be creative, communicators need to take their cues from marketers or advertisers. They need to know who the audience is and what concerns them. They should clearly define what needs to be said, and consider the most effective ways to say it. And they need to find new and creative ways to package and deliver their messages.

We need to recognize that our goal is not just explaining new deductibles or organizational restructuring. Our ultimate objective is building employee relations and maintaining the trust of a constituency that accomplishes the work of the organization.

Al Schlachtmeyer is a consultant and national practice leader for communication, Hewitt Associates, Lincolnshire, Ill., and Max Caldwell is a consultant and Boston Center communication manager for Hewitt Associates, Boston, Mass.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Caldwell, Max
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jun 1, 1991
Previous Article:Communicators comment on changing communication strategies.
Next Article:Shouts heard around the world: communicating in the global village.

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