Over the last year, we’ve seen companies of all sizes and across all industries reckon with their internal policies related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Board rooms—physical and virtual—teemed with organizational angst about how to appropriately communicate a commitment to anti-racist ideals.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) estimates that 80% of American companies released a statement about racial injustice and the protests against it in 2020. Astonishingly, more than two-thirds of those organizations did not gather the thoughts of their employees before doing so.
Proper communication with employee stakeholders at all levels is critical to maintain employee engagement and to create sustainable initiatives that endure past the closing of the media window. The urgency with which many Fortune 1000 companies responded to protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder is commendable, but communicating those decisions to internal audiences is necessary to create accountability. On these corporate statements throughout the summer of 2020, Una Osili, associate dean at the IUPUI Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, noted that “because these are pledges, there isn’t any one entity that will be holding these organizations accountable.”
If any entity can, it’s the employees that comprise the business.
Internal communications cannot be an afterthought. Employees are the faces of a business and, more-so than almost any other audience, determine the success of major business objectives. Engage them thoughtfully and integrate their feedback. If you consider your employees as key stakeholders, you may want to take a public relations mindset to how you communicate with them.
Defining Your Publics
Public relations can be easily misunderstood as simply media relations, but there are a myriad of other groups that public relations professionals must keep in mind. Consumers, sponsors, and yes, the media, are all part of the broader public that organizations should look to engage.
Each one of those publics—or audiences—should receive a tailored message that conveys just how important they are to the organization. When reaching out to consistent donors at a nonprofit, for instance, the goal is to help them understand how impactful their donations have been.
Prospective employees are clearly an important public. Recruitment marketing is critical in a competitive labor marketplace, and potential employees are weighing a company’s public statements and its mission more than ever before. Glassdoor’s Mission & Culture Survey 2019 showed that 79% of adults consider a company’s mission and purpose before choosing to apply for a job. More than half of respondents to the survey also claimed culture was more important than salary as a factor in overall satisfaction. Staying quiet on important social and cultural issues of the day can cost you.
Furthermore, current employees deserve to be a part of the conversation. Employees want to know their work is appreciated and their opinions are valued, and business leaders can provide meaningful ways for their team members to give feedback through town halls and open forums or the creation of committees. When a major announcement is coming down the pike, employees shouldn’t be the last to know.
Leveraging Employee Engagement
The concept of internal public relations—engaging PR professionals to assist in messaging for a strictly internal audience—is a recent development, but internal communications have always been crucial. Employee engagement had been the exclusive domain of human resources, and for efforts focused on individual employee growth, this should still be the case. When the goal is broader—mobilizing employees to act or deepening the emotional commitment to an organization and its goals—it’s time for the PR pros.
Bringing a PR mindset to internal communications can mean engaging in previously underutilized tactics like employee surveys or focus groups. No one knows an organization as well as the people who work within it each day. Are corporations living up to the goals they set for themselves in the summer of 2020? Lay the evidence out before a group of interested employees and gather their feedback. A company is accountable to its workforce in a more immediate way that it is to the broader public.
Getting cooperation from employees necessarily means keeping them happy and engaged. To do that, you’ve got to avoid the biggest pitfall.
Avoiding Faux Pas
The last thing you want is for internal stakeholders to learn of a major change to company policy or their own jobs from an external source. When a company raises a new round of funding or prepares a merger or acquisition, it is appropriate to engage the media in order to publicize the announcement. The press release, media pitches, and talking points may take hours of work and undergo several revisions before they are ready for external consumption, but that same level of care is also necessary for your internal audiences.
Even good company news—the acquisition of a direct competitor—can invite anxious questions from employees.
“Am I keeping my job?”
“What if I’m made redundant?”
“Does this mean I’m overseeing a new team?”
Communicate to your employees directly and truthfully. Don’t beat around the bush.
Reflecting again on the corporate response to racial justice protests in 2020, many companies were eager to say the right thing and to say it as fast as they could. That impulse is understandable, but failing to properly engage with internal audiences on social issues that impact the entire workforce can lead down the path to ephemeral Instagram posts and press releases. Such a short-term approach lacks accountability and erodes trust between current and prospective employees and the C-suite.
Lasting change is possible, but executives must bring employees with them on the journey. Organizations that spent the last year surveying their employees, bringing diverse voices into the board room, and aiming to build sustainable progress are better situated for the future than those who managed to get their statement drafted and disseminated first. When employees believe in the values and mission of a company, they are more excited to come to work each day and more likely to stick around.
A clear internal communications strategy yields more than just positive vibes; engaged, excited employees can strengthen your overall marketing position.