Schwartz: Make the Water Cooler Part of Your PR Measurement Plan

September 26, 2012

By Melissa Schwartz

The following article is reprinted with permission from PR News’ PR Measurement Guidebook, Volume 6

The hallmarks of a standard public relations/communications program are generally the same. Personnel are drawn from marketing, public affairs, external affairs, community relations, Web and board/advisory committee liaisons. These participants all have clear expectations and reporting structures. What is often neglected, however, is the internal communication strategy. This equally critical but often disregarded element makes a true impact, and can make a real difference in whether your public relations program succeeds or fails.

It is critical that your organization – regardless of size, sector or mission – create, maintain and implement an internal communications strategy that ensures that your employees are not being left behind as you plan announcements, market/product updates, and initiatives. This internal communications program should be scaled to your organization’s capacity, but at a minimum should include regular opportunities for employee engagement, and a single point of contact that will be held accountable for its maintenance. This effort can reap significant rewards; a lack of one can create a glaring weakness that places you at a great disadvantage.

PR measurement is only as good as the discussion at the office water cooler. Your PR campaign may address key stakeholders, media, policy and decision makers, and the public, but if your staff has not been brought in, and has not bought in, you’re losing the battle before you’ve begun to fight.

The following principles will help you and your management team create and stick with an internal communications road map that fits the needs of your business or organization. As with any strategic plan, the most important thing is to set reasonable expectations of what success will look like.


#1: “What is the objective we seek?”

Have you ever taken a job somewhere that had a mission that you disagreed with? Me neither. For the most part, we accept opportunities because we have bought in to the product/perspective/mission that our company is promoting. In many ways, a new employee is your best asset – enthusiastic and untainted. Once your employees get past the human resources orientation, however, they start to become a product of the environment around them. The water cooler discussions begin on day one.

Whether employees continue to root for the organizational team or not has a lot to do with how much a part of your team they feel they are. Before you begin creating an internal communications plan, you should ask yourself a critical question: “What is the objective we seek?”

Before putting together an internal communications plan, it’s important that you and your team resolve what actually it IS that you are hoping to get out of an internal communications strategy. For example, are you engaging in internal communications planning because:

  • You genuinely want employee opinion?
  • You are unresolved on an issue and are looking for influencers?
  • You want to test messages or products?
  • You are trying to improve morale?
  • You want to maintain morale through staff engagement?
  • You are responding to claims that internal communications has not been strong?

Any of these – and any combination of these – is a legitimate reason to guide the implementation of an internal communications strategy. It’s easy enough to convince an executive that internal communications is needed and will make the organization stronger as an institution. The challenge is, once you’ve made the decision, where do you start and how do you implement a manageable strategy that is sustainable? If 50 different employees have 50 different opinions, how do you choose a course of action and still appear responsive?

The reason to go through this exercise is that it will help you direct effort and resources, rather than trying to implement a plan that tries to be all things to all people. Since we know that employee opinions will vary dramatically, the “What is the objective we seek?” test allows you to direct your planning, and manage expectations.


#2: Asking for an opinion doesn’t mandate compliance.

Now that you’ve asked yourself, “What is the objective we seek?,” you have an idea of what your goals are. I’m guessing that none of them is to allow your employees to take over managing the organization. There is a common misperception that asking someone’s opinion means that you have to follow it. This fallacy can undermine your planning before you’ve begun. You and your leadership team are, and will remain, the decision makers, but that doesn’t mean you should shut out staff input altogether. Employees who are brought in will feel bought in, which is likely one of the reasons you set out to develop a plan in the first place.

Regardless of your strategy, you clearly are interested in making staff feel included. The #1 way to make that happen is to literally bring staff to the table. Part of setting expectations is being clear about the end result of this engagement. Is there any chance that something you hear will change your mind? Set a course in a new direction? If so, say it. If not, don’t.

Employees don’t need to “win,” but they do need to be heard. Making the effort does not guarantee an outcome, and setting that expectation up front can appropriately frame your internal communications efforts.

An example

I was once a part of a strategic branding exercise that included selection of a new logo. My management team agreed that, in an effort to make staff feel a part of the process, we would have an all employee vote on the final designs that had been selected. Forty percent of our employees responded, which seemed low. When I began asking around about the response, the two more common complaints I heard were:

  • Employees felt excluded from the design process because they were only shown the four final options, and
  • When this exercise had occurred several years prior under previous leadership, the clear favorite of the employees was not chosen, so staff assumed soliciting employee opinion was an empty exercise and chose not to waste their time.

Both were completely legitimate responses, but the challenge for our team was how to take that feedback and do something meaningful with it. Remembering that we could not be all things to all people, we shrugged off complaints that the staff had not viewed the 30 or so designs that we had gone through to get to the final selections. On the second point, however, there was room for a positive impact. To start, we recognized that we had not done due diligence on a relevant piece of the organization’s history. If we had, we would have known that a similar exercise had been done years before and produced an unsatisfactory result (for many employees).

That said, we wanted to do what we could in announcing the results to help address the feedback we were hearing. So we:

  1. Clarified expectations: The day the vote closed, we put out an all-employee communication thanking everyone who participated, and reiterated that their vote would be one of the major factors used to select the logos;
  2. Made the process transparent: Within days of the vote, we posted the results on our intranet site. Despite having set expectations about the vote only being one factor, we wanted staff to see that we had calculated and reviewed their feedback; and we
  3. Weighed the impact on morale: This logo represented all of us. The employee vote did end up influencing some of our leadership, and in the end, we selected as our final choice the logo that had won the most votes.

It’s possible that the leadership would have gone another way with the designs, and we would have managed the communications differently if that was the end result. But this anecdote is not intended to demonstrate that we gave in to employee votes. Instead, it illustrates how to take the negative feedback you may be hearing and try to use it constructively to reform how you deal with your employees. Looking for opportunities with respect to every major decision – to make staff feel a part of the process, even if they aren’t the deciders – can make a major difference in how they view their value within the organization.


#3: Employee engagement needs to be tailored to the employees, not the employer.

Employees respond to opportunities to provide feedback in many ways. Once you know what you want to get out of your strategy (“What is the objective we seek?”), you need to create employee engagement opportunities that allow for the extroverts and introverts among them to find a way to share their views. Identifying what you want out of your internal communications program should provide you with some options for measuring ongoing engagement and different avenues to get there. These might include:

  • All-employee town halls: All-employee meetings are excellent steps in making your staff feel that they are being heard. Town halls not only allow you to disseminate information quickly and broadly; they also bring your staff together for the shared experience. Town halls are not without their challenges, however. In fact, they carry a fairly high risk, and are not the best recommended for the weak at heart. Even the strongest executive can be unnerved as he/she struggles to manage and moderate an all-employee town hall. This format was made for the extroverts and showboats among the employees, and there is often that one employee who stands up to comment or ask a question who puts on a bit of a show for the audience.Despite the challenge, this is still an excellent way to be very visible in your efforts to obtain the views of your employees. A few ways to make town halls a bit less overwhelming include:
    1. Breaking your staff into smaller, manageable groups based on division or department;
    2. Creating a panel of management representatives who can pivot to each other based on the relevance of the question or comment; and
    3. Taking written questions ahead of time that you can review and prepare for before the meeting begins (cautionary advice: if you decide not to answer a question, be ready to be challenged on it and have a good answer to explain your decision).
  • Employee surveys:Whether written or electronic, staff surveys allow your employees to provide feedback to you confidentially. Though less dynamic that an employee town hall, surveys do appeal to the more introverted of your employees. The challenge with a survey, however, is that someone needs to actually read them. Being unresponsive to a staff survey will decrease your credibility with staff and lower participation next time you want to survey employee opinion.
  • Employee intranet: If you don’t already have an internal Web mechanism for your organization, you should strongly consider one. An internal Web site – or intranet – creates a community for your employees where they can learn about what is going on and engage with each other. Like the employee surveys, this option requires that someone take responsibility for keeping the site dynamic and interesting. A stagnant intranet isn’t going to make employees feel engaged. If they are going to check it regularly (or better yet, make it their home page), then they need to know that they can expect news and new information.

Measuring the Impact of Employee Engagement Strategy

Once you create a road map to engage your employees, your team needs to develop a strategy to measure its impact. Again, you may want to take some time to explore the question, “what is the objective we seek?” What were the goals you set for engaging your internal audience? What aspects of that engagement do you most want to measure? This could include:

  • Are messages being understood and are effective?
  • Is the launch of a new product successful?
  • Is a crisis communication situation being adequately managed?

After you have made a decision about what you want to measure, you should identify opportunities to ensure that you are getting a true reflection of the impact (or lack thereof) that your public relations program is having on your employees. In addition to encouraging your managers to keep their ear to the ground, using staff engagement sessions to measure your impact is a simple and effective way to measure the impact of your communications program.

Consider creating a list to initiate questions with your audience and see how they are received. You can also reference recent media coverage to begin a conversation about how your communication strategies are being received.

For example, an organization I worked for was being criticized on a near-nightly basis by an on-air personality. While our statements were accurately read aloud by the broadcaster, it was hard to tell whether the audience was moved in any way given the commentator’s perspective. To be sure, one of our most significant challenges was discerning whether the messages we were using to combat the false on-air claims were effective at all. In a staff meeting intended to soothe employees and boost morale, the organization’s leadership repeated the messages that were being used on air, and looked for indications from staff as to what they were feeling about the strength of the communication. In fact, staff overwhelming accepted and repeated the messages being communicated and expressed frustration over what clearly appeared to be a selective representation of the truth on air.

This evaluation of the staff encouraged us to continue with our consistent messaging rather than shifting focus, and providing some responsive and positive feedback for a leadership team that was struggling for some immediate reaction.



#4: Validation is key to your success.

So you’ve figured out what your internal communications road map should look like, now how do you maintain it? Once your staff is brought in, how do you make sure that they are and remain bought in? Your internal communications plan should not just include strategies to get the word out and engage employees, it should also provide clear feedback that allows you to keep staff bought in by demonstrating the impact of their involvement. This helps show your employees that you believe in the engagement, and are not just checking a box.

As we discussed in Point #2 (Asking for an opinion doesn’t mandate compliance), there may be nothing you hear through employee communications that makes a difference in any of your management decisions. That doesn’t mean you should not regularly mention the active participation of your staff, your appreciation of their feedback, and the value of their perspective. In fact, this tactic is particularly important if you choose not to implement staff recommendations or comments. Show staff that they are a part of the process, even if their views didn’t end up being adopted by management.

Regular attempts should be made to follow up on the internal communications opportunities you have created. Frame follow-up communications so that they comment on what you heard and if/how the responses have been addressed. If changes are made as a result of staff feedback, make that clear both internally and externally. Don’t be afraid to name employees who have made an impact – this type of validation can make a very real difference for employees among their colleagues. This recognition encourages your staff to engage with you and makes them feel heard.

In addition to referring to staff feedback and highlighting staff contributions, it’s important to share your organizational successes with your staff. This might involve sharing major announcements with your staff before going public or making sure they receive important announcements (via email or intranet) as soon as they are out. Although this carries a challenge around the potential leaking of information, the benefit to allowing your staff to learn news from you, and not their local paper, should be given substantial weight.

No step in an internal communications strategy is too small to be ignored. At the same time, the impact of a misstep should not be underestimated. The water cooler is an amazing microcosm. Your staff is talking every day about how they feel about how they are treated, and how they see themselves within the organization. It is those conversations that are setting the tone in your workforce and preventing (or creating) a sense of teamwork and organizational camaraderie. Influencing this dynamic and debate is your responsibility, and should be seen as high a priority as any other part of your company’s other communications programs. How you engage and interact with your staff is part of the legacy you will create. Your employees are your messengers – they carry your mission as effectively as an advertising campaign. The steps may seem small, but they have a huge return. PRN

Melissa Schwartz (@MSchwartz3) is the Vice President for Strategy and External Affairs at The Bromwich Group, a strategic consulting firm in Washington, D.C. Schwartz has provided strategic communications and public affairs support on a wide range of global issues and sectors over the past decade. At both political and nonprofit organizations, she has developed and implemented strategic communications plans focusing earned media and community organizing on local, state, federal and international levels, with additional expertise in media training, message development, media relations and crisis management.

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