Tuesday, September 29

Forgetting A Public: Public Relations

Earlier this year, Salary.com published the 2008/2009 Employee Satisfaction and Retention Survey that revealed 65 percent of employees were passively or actively looking for new jobs.

What made the survey stand out is that employers only estimated that number at 37 percent. In fact, while employers had a good sense of overall employee satisfaction, they often overestimated the degree of satisfaction by nearly 2 to 1.

Lori Rosenwasser, writing for Forbes, used it to once again remind employers that there may be some fall out for companies that are "not actively recruiting" but are also unconcerned with retention. The most misguided assume employees are holding on to their jobs for dear life.

As evidence, consider The New York Times article that points out employers are too uncertain to hire employees despite an upturn in the economy. With job seekers currently outnumbering openings six to one, the worst ratio since the government began tracking open positions in 2000, continued uncertainty could become self-fulfilling.

While there is some prudence in waiting to fully understand the financial consequences of health care reform, increasing likelihood of potential tax increases and regulations, and rising cost of labor; being overly cautious could further hinder growth, aggravate employee loyalty, and diminish customer service as employees who already feel like they have made sacrifices are asked to do more for less despite signs of a turnaround.

The Public Behind Multiple Publics

Very few employees exist as a singular public anymore. Many of them, especially in larger companies, are also direct or indirect shareholders, customers, industry influencers, regulars, activists, and marketers. Specifically, they don't come to work every day to receive a salary.

They come to work because they might believe in the product or service. They might come to work because they appreciate their 401k may be tied to the company's performance. They may serve on commissions or in associations that either self-police the industry or interconnect with government. They might be fans or friends of the company via an online group. They may vest or fund organizations that lobby government against the industry in which they work. And the list goes on.

Can public relations really afford to consider a news release limited in its scope to the media? Can investor communication claim the economy is the cause when employee-investors might know better? If a company decides to save dollars on the assembly line, do employee-customers decide to purchase another product? Do employees feel forced to join online communities and support the company, granting it even more access to their semi-public communications? Are companies inveterately funding organizations that will press for their next tax increase or sweeping industry changes?

The challenges in meeting the needs of the most neglected public are exponential, well beyond the questions posed by Mary Ellen Slayter at SmartBlog on Workforce. While she rightly suggests that companies operate with integrity, leadership, and responsibility, maybe it's time that public relations professionals consider companies are much more transparent than they ever imagined.

Where Employees Are The Message

To that extent, it may even be the story-beyond-the-story that has Domino's, Ford Motor Co. and Kellogg Co. turning employees into marketing talent. While the story talks about a move to cut marketing costs while creating a bond with audiences, it also creates an opportunity to share multiple messages with multiple publics, especially those that consist of one public with multiple roles.

While not always confined to executives, one of several examples includes GM Chairman Edward Whitacre Jr. attempting to build rapport with viewers before urging them to try GM's vehicles.

"Before I started this job, I admit I had some doubts. Probably a lot like you," Whitacre says as he strides down the halls of GM's Design Center in Warren. "But I like what I've found. I think you will, too."

Is this a message to customers? Or employees? Or investors? Or all of the above? Is it advertising? marketing? public relations? social media (once it is placed on YouTube or a blog)? Or all of the above? Is it a cost-cutting measure? Exercise in transparency? High touch message? Or all of the above?

The move really isn't only about messaging in the current market nor does it necessarily require employees. As advertisers and public relations professionals work toward message integration, it becomes more apparent that communication needs to touch multiple publics for different reasons, especially when those multiple publics can be traced back to the one most responsive to high touch messages.

Right on. It's a bit more complicated than sending a news release, but someone needs to advise executives that the modern employee isn't the same employee that they knew two or three decades ago. Without their support, it's all upstream.


Dean @ Pro Copy Tips on 9/29/09, 5:50 PM said...

It's rough out there. I'm glad I run my own business and don't have to deal with the stress of a "job" or job hunting.

But you're right, companies that hunker down could find themselves in trouble when the market eventually (and inevitably) picks up. In a white paper I published recently at www.DirectCreative.com/blog (Getting Response in a Down Economy), I cited a study that showed how much movement there can be in a down economy. 20% on the bottom can move up and 20% at the top can move down.

Then there's the classic Sears and Montgomery Ward story. During WWII, Sears remained aggressive. Ward's waited it out. Sears is still strong. Ward's has shrunk to a shadow of itself. Few even know they exist anymore.

Bill Sledzik on 9/30/09, 4:40 AM said...

Back when I did communication audits, one of the first things I investigated was employee perceptions and attitudes. And when I wrote my recommendations, it usually started with this key public -- which is, as you point out -- a part of many other publics as well.

Pat Jackson, a man who changed my thinking about PR in the 80s and 90s, convinced me that employees are THE most critical messengers. If the message from those employees is a negative one (shaped by their experience and perceptions), then all the other work we do in public relations could be for naught.

It's easy to forget this when the economy sours, since RIO on employee programs is tough to gauge.

Rich on 10/1/09, 7:39 AM said...


I could not agree with you more. There seems to be an irony in that many people who sought job security are in reality less secure than the people who never embraced the illusion of it.

The Sears/Ward's example is brilliant. And so history repeats. How many companies are sending messages to their customers and staff that things are so tough nobody needs what they are offering?
Most of them.


My lesson came from watching two local rate case hikes, with one informing employees every step of the way and other not informing employees. Customers were literary besiege the employees who lived in their neighborhood for answers and, alas, they had none, which fueled even more resentment for the company and reduced morale.

In a more general sense, it makes sense why they forget, yet employee communication and morale is one of the few things that a company can manage.

There is simply too much focus on the sour stuff that they cannot manage, let alone control. As employees see challenges in an economy or government, they tend to look to their employer for assurances or, at least, honesty. If they don't find it, those employees intentionally or unintentionally contribute to the problem.

Of course it's challenging to keep the focus on the areas we can manage. But, you know, nobody said leadership would be easy. It's part of the job.

Maybe we just have too many managers and not enough leaders out there right now. That is what Harvard had told us for years now.

Oh, and Pat Jackson is spot on. They ARE the most critical messengers. As I explained to the utility with the informed employees ... if you have 1,500 employees who know 20 people each (on ave.), word of mouth from those employees on a pressing issue like a rate increase will reach the entire area market faster than media can pull together a story.

All my best,


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