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The communication professional as change master.

When a company goes through the trauma of restructuring and 40 percent of American companies downsized between June 1987 and June 1988- many communicators find themselves among the casualties of change. But the communicator who actively participates in managing change has a tremendous opportunity to make a significant impact on the welfare of the organization and, at the same time, increase the credibility and stature of communication in the company.

I joined USG in June 1988 in the midst of the successful effort by this building materials manufacturer to fend off an unfriendly takeover. The success, however, took its toll: The resulting recapitalization meant USG's corporate debt immediately soared from US $800 million to $3.1 billion. What's more, interest expenses will likely total $800,000 per day for the next several years. To reduce the debt burden, USG sold off selected assets, including some subsidiary companies, resulting in a work force reduction from 21,000 to 15,000.

Prior to the takeover battle, USG's internal communication consisted of a four-color magazine published three times a year, memos from management and packages of human resources information. Because of legal restrictions, USG was hindered in communicating with employees about the takeover while the battle was raging. Even if we had been able to do so, a limited number of communication vehicles existed to convey timely information.

Consequently, employees in mid were justifiably 1988 concerned, somewhat confused and uncertain about the future of the corporation. The communication challenge was to help stabilize the work force by communicating USG's commitment to employees and guiding them through a cultural change: from a secure, stable environment offering career employment to a more competitive and cost-conscious one. We had to help employees understand the challenges facing the company, manage the information flow-the rumor mill was working overtime-and encourage ongoing commitment to USG. The situation was especially critical because, as a result of the recapitalization, employee stock ownership had increased from 8 percent to approximately 26 percent.

Because of the urgency of expanding the employee communication effort, we had no time for a formal attitude assessment survey. Instead, we did soft soundings of management and employees and an informal audit of existing communication. Major findings: Morale was low, the existing employee publication did not provide timely information on a regular schedule and inconsistent messages were being delivered to employees from a variety of sources.

The immediate need was to assess how we were reaching employees and what communication should be doing. But because USG was in the midst of restructuring, management was reshaping the organization and could not provide a clear-cut corporate strategy upon which to base a communication plan. Communication about the corporation often had to be developed in tandem with the reshaping of the organization.

While management was still developing a new corporate focus, it was futile to proceed independently to address company-wide concerns from a single department perspective. Conversations with human resource managers showed that not only were others struggling with related employee concerns, but also there were a lot of different ideas about what should be done. We were acutely aware that any proposed programs would need widespread support to be effective. It was essential to involve others in communication planning.

Communication Steering Committee Created

On the recommendation of human resources and communication staff, senior management created an employee communication steering committee to develop an action plan. Key managers, identified as valuable for their input, and representative of USG's major subsidiaries and disciplines (human resources, operations, manufacturing, sales and marketing, finance), were appointed to the committee.

As chairman, I was responsible for coordinating the fact-finding process, reaching consensus and making decisions based on the committee's input. To get things rolling, we presented a working action plan to stimulate reaction and thinking. In retrospect, that working plan was a critical instrument in launching the committee by focusing its work and opening a valuable exchange of information and ideas.

As a committee, we developed objectives for our action plan and key top-down messages our communication media would have to carry. We examined a wide range of media to enable us to reach employees on a timely basis, not only at our Chicago, Ill. headquarters, but at our 200 plants and offices around the world. Because of the breadth of representation on the committee, we were able to separate good ideas from impractical ones. Finally, we chose a combination of media that would enable us to reach all employees in a timely way:

Looking Ahead, a revised, eight-page tabloid that now appears bimonthly.

* USG Today, an 800-number hotline, with messages updated on an average of every three days, which employees can use to get the latest news on USG.

* USG Bulletin, a combination of electronic communication vehicles, including FAX and electronic mail, which can reach 95 percent of all employees in four hours.

* Direct communication from managers and supervisors, aided by the USG Employee Communications Presentation Guide, ensuring that all managers are consistent in their messages.

* USG Video News, a 15-minute news magazine.

* USG Headquarters Bulletin Boards, with postings changed daily.

* USG Insight, a Q&A publication answering employee questions, directed at supervisors and managers to support top-down authority.

In addition, each subsidiary implements its own communication programs for information specific to its employees and business. A key point is that funding for many of these programs was attained through temporary reallocation of existing budgets. We felt we needed to show some success before we could look for ongoing funding. Essentially, we began some vehicles on speculation, that, if they worked, we would find a way to continue.

Each vehicle has a strategic reason for being. For example, the 800 number provides employees with the most current information about the company. While the committee considered including stock market quotes to encourage employees to call, we ultimately decided not to. The point was to provide information, particularly to remote locations, not simply to generate calls. Similarly, we rejected electronic message boards because, despite their benefits, we felt the medium would become more important than the message. In the end, the combination of vehicles enabled us to reach every employee in at least two different ways, and made our communication much more timely and effective. Never before could we reach everyone quickly.

Could the communication staff have come up with these same programs without the complications of a steering committee? Maybe. But I'm convinced the programs are far more effective and relevant to USG because of the committee. Our discussions considered how communication really works in the various company work environments, based on the day-to-day experience of people on the scene. Programs and vehicles were tailored to meet reality, not "pie-in-the-sky" assumptions.

Perhaps more importantly, their involvement in the process of considering options and making decisions gave members of the committee, and the segments of the organization they represented, a stake in the program's success. While they were supportive of communication before, they are advocates now.

Committee members agreed that the process worked well. Linda Novak, editor of the employee publication, commented on the process. "Initially, I was uncertain about having a committee directing the focus of our communication effort. But the committee was very effective," she said. "It was a source of ideas for new programs. It gave public relations useful guidance and gave us a chance to test our ideas with people who know their individual businesses. Even disagreement was okay, because the discussion was enlightening."

Committee member Bruce Ralph, human resources director for a subsidiary, agreed. We needed to do better in the quality and frequency of our communication, to make it more relevant to the issues facing the company and employees, to be more open on both the good and the bad," he said. We had several communication issues to address. But the toll-free hotline helped to short-circuit the rumor mill, and the bulletins let us reach all employees with the same announcement on the same day before they read it in the local newspaper. Our communication has vastly improved, and the company is building credibility through talking openly about issues.

First-Year, Second-Year Plans

In the first year, we developed a program to provide employees with top-down communication from management to help them understand and support corporate goals and plans. To improve the substance and credibility of our communication, we've told bad news along with good, striving to offer employees the kind of objective and valuable information they need to perform their jobs effectively. Initial indications are that the media and messages are working well: Employee feedback on the magazine is favorable, the 800 number is averaging more than 100 calls a day, employees recognize the company's commitment to improved communication, morale and productivity are improving.

But we're not through. Communication is an ongoing process, and much more remains to be done. Although the steering committee no longer meets every month, it convenes as appropriate. For year two, we're developing more bottom-up communication: focus groups, an ambassador program and more frequent plant visits by key executives. We'll also refine and improve what we've already started. Feedback tells us the hotline could be improved, and we know our messages can be fine-tuned.

Surprisingly, the most negative feedback we've received has been from some employees objecting to the bad news they sometimes hear or read. And we still have to struggle occasionally to get copy approved by managers who haven't yet assimilated some of the cultural changes taking place.

But on the whole, the first year of the consensus-building communication process has been successful. We broke tradition by assembling a team to build the communication plan, a team whose members represented far more than communication and human resources. The committee is action-oriented, not paralyzed by over-planning. We created new communication media as well as revamping existing ones, and enhanced credibility by mixing bad news in with good. And we created our strategic plan as we went along: short-term planning, testing, revising, longer-term planning.

Next year we'll do some formal employee surveys to find out what employees think, and we'll work to tie that research to measurements of productivity and performance. However, communication never exists in a vacuum, and the operations people are busy taking steps to improve productivity, too. It will be impossible to separate the effects of the individual elements of a total corporation-wide effort to increase productivity.

I can report, though, that the stature of communication at USG has been elevated and that the internal communication process has made a meaningful and lasting contribution. Communication-the media and the function- have greater credibility and respect now. As Linda Novak put it: We didn't just change things, we got agreement on what should be done. "

Perhaps the best indication of the proven value of communication to USG is the enthusiastic support by senior management for continuation of the expanded program in 1990.
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:public relations strategy during a takeover attempt
Author:Gonring, Matthew P.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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