This blog post features a paper in the latest issue of the PR Journal.
Organizational change is a constant challenge for those who specialize in internal communication. Scholars have reported that 70% of change programs fail, and the cause is often attributed to poor communication (Daly, Teague & Kitchen, 2003; Kitchen & Daly, 2002).
In a new article published in Public Relations Journal, I discuss best practices in change management communication based on 32 in-depth interviews conducted with internal communication executives working in 26 U.S. companies and organizations. Seventeen of the executives discussed these issues in the context of specific organizational changes they were undergoing or had recently faced (e.g., mergers, changes in senior leadership and layoffs), and the remaining 15 executives discussed change management more generally.
Despite facing many internal obstacles, the internal communication executives were quite aware of effective communication approaches to gain employee support for organizational change initiatives. The influence of author and scholar Kotter (1995) was readily apparent as one vice president of corporate communications said his eight-step process was posted prominently in the office near their computers. Some common strategies the internal communicators reported using included recruiting employee ambassadors or identifying influencers. More specifically, one consultant recommended recruiting a challenge team:
Find some of these influencers and bring them in and tell them about something early and have them challenge you. So you’ll say, “Here’s what we’re planning to do, what do you think?” And they’ll give you that sort of perspective that represents what their peers are likely to think and you might change course because of that…We’ve often found…bringing those people in early, giving them a preview, trusting them, they tend to then become believers in what it is you’re trying to do and then they go back and talk to their peers and say, “You know, this is actually a really good idea.”
In times of major change, some of communication professionals urged their leaders to take road trips to meet face to face with employees both formally and informally.
When road trips were not feasible, the executives suggested that video was a good alternative. As a vice president of communication said, “We have found that video is very powerful because it can help convey tone and passion…in such a way where the leadership voice is very crisp and clear.” One of the consultants also recommended using storytelling and testimonials from employees to support change, “People love reading about people like them, and there’s this tendency of ‘Oh, wow if they can do it, I guess I could.’”
The internal communication executives also provided specific guidelines regarding key messages to communicate to employees. A consultant provided this advice:
As you go through change, you should reinforce your values and talk about how the change is consistent with your values and also articulate the end state. So why are you changing?…Articulate the end game, so that they understand why do we need to change, what are we trying to accomplish, and how are we going to get there? So that people think it’s worth their while to go along and to embrace the change that’s desired.
At a minimum, change communication should address what the changes mean for employees and the impact on their jobs. Other executives said it is critical to communicate the specific benefits of the change and offer resources and alternatives for employees to assist them in times of change, particularly in times of a reduction in employee benefit packages or layoffs.
6 Best Practices in Change Management Communication
Based on the study’s findings, the following best practices are recommended:
- Internal communication should work with senior leadership to develop information guides and talking points for mid-level and direct supervisors that explain the reasons for the change, how the change is consistent with the organization’s values and how employees will be impacted.
- Mid-level managers and direct supervisors should be available and offer opportunities for employees to share their concerns and any problems they are encountering during implementation of the changes.
- Internal communicators should help develop opportunities and encourage leadership to engage in symmetrical communication during times of change such as town halls, site visits, and skip-level meetings.
- Internal communicators should share employee stories that demonstrate support for the change and how the change is consistent with the organization’s identity and values.
- Public relations should be included in the decision-making team when change management plans are being developed as well as assist with communication strategies and tactics.
- Public relations, human resources and marketing need to collaborate when developing and implementing change management communication initiatives.
Marlene Neill, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media at Baylor University. Follow her on Twitter @neillpr.
Daly, F., Teague, P. & Kitchen, P. (2003). Exploring the role of internal communication during organisational change. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 8(3), 153-162.
Kitchen, P.J, & Daly, F. (2002). Internal communication during change management. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 7(1), 46-53.
Kotter, J.P. (1995). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review, March/April, 59-67.