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Internal communication restructures for the '90s.

Internal Communication Restructures For the `90s

Corporate communicators in major US firms report that top managements are stepping-up their demands for communication to reach employees during a period of unprecedented internal change.

Nearly 70 percent of the 281 firms participating in a recent Conference Board study were restructured and about half experienced major staff cutbacks during the mid '80s; over 40 percent were involved in mergers or acquisitions.

In the wake of these changes, employees face tighter staffing, increased workloads, longer work hours, and greater emphasis on performance, excellence, risk taking and inventiveness. One result: "Major changes have resulted in anxiety and some cynicism among employees. Maintaining credibility has been an ongoing challenge," a communicator in a consumer products firm notes.

Survey respondents report that today's top corporate managers expect communicators not only to inform employees and help bolster morale, but also to craft messages that will influence employee behavior. High-priority messages include explanations about internal change, shifts in the corporate culture, and new salary and benefit plans. Increased productivity and attention to quality head the list of behaviors that top management hopes employee communicators will promote.

Honing Management Skills Far reaching changes in the business environment have been accompanied by shifts in the mission of the employee communication function: "Our communication is more oriented toward company goals and product information--less toward human interest stories," says a practitioner in an insurance company. "We are placing more emphasis on developing positive attitudes and a quality culture," a counterpart in a chemical firm explains. Notes a communicator in an electronics firm, "We have become more focused on the business environment, company programs, the `war we are fighting.'" Executives in more than half of the surveyed firms made some changes recently, and 15 percent said that today's mission is "very" different.

Respondents report that they are polishing their management skills and searching for ways to "work smarter" at a time when top management is asking them to do more with less. Survey results reveal that:

. Three-quarters of the responding firms prepare an annual plan for employee communication; in a majority of these firms, the communication plan becomes part of the corporate plan.

. About a third of the firms have a written policy statement covering employee communications.

. Communicators are monitoring the effectiveness of their programs through employee surveys in almost 60 percent of the responding firms. Virtually all of these companies conduct readership studies, and many firms include questions about communication in a regularly scheduled study of employee attitudes.

. Almost half of the respondents "reappraised" their communication program recently. In one out of two firms, an outside consultant was used. Most often, the outcome of this effort is an overhaul of printed materials, or the creation of new communication vehicles, especially videos. But in some cases, sweeping changes resulted, and a few executives reported that resources were cut and responsibilities were decentralized.

Responsibilities, Titles and Reporting Relationships Responsibility for employee communication at the corporate level is shared by executives in the corporate communication (or public affairs/relations) department and those in human resources (or personnel). In some firms, the two groups have what one practitioner described as a "hand and fist" relationship, but all of those interviewed agree that "things work better when we cooperate" and many offered examples.

Survey data reveal that, in general, communication executives are responsible for management letters and bulletins, for one or more employee periodicals, and for audiovisual communiques. Human resources executives generally take charge of specialized messages, such as employee-orientation and compensation and benefit materials, and run bulletin board programs. Both departments sponsor small-group meetings, although human resources executives are somewhat more likely to do so.

In more than two-thirds of the cases studied, the person with managerial responsibility for employee communication has the title of vice president or director. In only a few cases does this responsibility lie with a person below the level of manager or supervisor. The employee communication executive reports to a top officer (CEO or president) in almost a quarter of the cases. In only a few instances does the function report to someone with a title below the level of director.

Staffing and Resources Currently, the median staff size at the corporate level is one part-time and three full-time professionals. But about a third of the serviced firms and a quarter of the manufacturers have five or more full-time professionals. In nearly half of the firms, staffing trends have been stable over the past few years; about 30 percent added staff and the rest made cuts.

Service firms, especially banks, are more likely than manufacturers to have increased staff size. A communicator from a bank reports this pattern of expansion: "In 1984 we hired a manager of employee communication. Prior to that time, there was a single writer/editor and no management function. We hope to expand the writing staff soon." But a manufacturer reports consolidation: "Communication with employees is now a part of each human resources person's job. At the corporate level, we have had no one, defined person or employee communication function since our 1985 reorganization."

Only about 20 percent of the respondents expects to add staff in the next few years, but few anticipate decreases. A steady state will prevail, according to three-quarters of the respondents.

Growing workloads are being shouldered by hiring outside expertise. Almost 60 percent of the companies used outside assistance in the past few years and nearly a quarter of those who have not done so expect to do so in 1989 or 1990.

Sixty percent of the respondents also note that higher costs for staff salaries as well as for publications and programs have been the rule at the corporate level recently. Overhead costs for the function have climbed in about half of the firms. These trends are expected to continue in the near future.

Cost control and tighter staffing at corporate headquarters may run in tandem with a trend away from centralizing staff functions at the corporate level. Among responding companies, shared responsibility for employee communication is the norm. Almost half divide tasks between corporate level executives and those at divisions or business units. About 40 percent centralize responsibility for most employee communication at the corporate level; less than 10 percent rely on a totally decentralized organizational model. According to respondents, sharing and decentralization is the organizational trend for the early '90s.

Delivering the Message to Employees Recent company-sponsored and independent surveys document a preference among employees for a two-way communication process and a face-to-face delivery system. And many communicators say they are working to build or polish such capabilities in their firms. Three-quarters of the responding firms have a program of small group meetings between managers and employees, and in 70 percent of these firms, such meetings have risen in the past few years. More than half of the executives report that their firms include communication training in management education programs.

The printed word remains a communication staple. Communicators rely on management letters and bulletins and the employee periodical to achieve most of their communication goals. More than 90 percent of the participating firms have at least one periodical that goes to all employees, with magazines having a slight edge over newsletters or newspapers. At least a third of the firms have a publication for one or more special groups: managers, individual divisions or specific functions such as sales. About a quarter of the respondents have a special publication for retirees.

An analysis of a sample of about 100 employee periodicals submitted by survey participants verifies communicators' assertions that the corporate publications stress business-related messages. Human interest material is generally positioned in the "back of the book." in special sidebars, or inside the front or back cover of an employee magazine. Lead articles discuss product information; profile key customers; feature particular divisions or locations; explain the expanding, global nature of the company's business; report employee responses to a recent attitude survey; or discuss a new company policy, such as a smoke-free environment. In interviews,corporate practitioners say that they expect that "chatty," human interest material, employee milestones and the like will be covered in newsletters or other publications prepared by plants, divisions or business units.

Desktop publishing technology is available in about 40 percent of the surveyed firms, but in about half of these companies it is used only at headquarters. Users were generally enthusiastic, citing cost savings and increased frequency of publication as major benefits. There are naysayers, however: "Right now it is too time intensive for our employees," says a retailer. "I do not want to turn writers into layout designers. It is an inefficient use of trained talent," says a communicator in a pharmaceutical firm.

Communicators submitted samples of a wide range of brochures and manuals that respond to special needs: company mission statements, guidelines on ethics, company histories, employee handbooks, and reports on community involvement. Compensation and benefit information tops the list of uses for special publications, but at least a third of the firms prepare brochures or manuals on corporate ethics, company products, or health and social issues.

Audio-visual materials are used by virtually all of the respondents, but are generally considered a complement to print. At least half of the companies use this medium to lift employee morale and promote goodwill, supply information about company products, encourage employees to be productive and quality oriented, and to inform them about salary and benefits. Video news magazines continue to be popular, but at least some companies interviewed reported that they no longer used videos or produced them less often (e.g. moving from a monthly to a quarterly schedule). In an era of cost containment and budget cutting, aspiring users voice doubts about audience penetration and wonder whether video is cost effective.

About a third of the respondents report using either telephone hotlines or computer-based "electronic" messaging to reach employees, most often with up-to-date news about internal changes.

Looking Ahead As they prepare for the '90s, communicators are hoping to enhance their position. The goal is to change the perception of top and line managers, so that communicators are no longer regarded as narrow technicians, but as part of the management team.

Communicators expect to continue their efforts to inform employees and bolster employee morale, as well as to exert more influence on employee performance, especially by focusing attention on important corporate goals and objectives. "I want to make the organization and its goals truly understandable," a practitioner in a financial service firm remarked.

Many communicators hope to upgrade the way they deliver messages to employees, through reworking periodicals, using more audiovisuals, or developing electronic messaging capability. Improved two-way communication between management and employees is also high on the agenda. Says a chemical company executive: "We have not been utilizing managers as the major source of information for the employee; we need to equip them better."

Several communicators list improved management of their function as a future priority. One vows: "All major decisions affecting employees should have a plan implemented before or in conjunction with the decision-making process."

Practitioners expect to gather more feedback on the effectiveness of their efforts, and to document their role in helping the company meet its goals.
COPYRIGHT 1989 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Troy, Kathryn
Publication:Communication World
Date:Feb 1, 1989
Previous Article:Fast track communicator changes lanes.
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